(CNN) -- In the week that Blu-ray consigned HD DVD to the remainder bins of history (and standard DVD will surely follow in the foreseeable future), Michel Gondry, one of the movies' most idiosyncratic innovators, unveils a quirky, nostalgic tribute to the antique charms of VHS with "Be Kind Rewind."
Anyone who remembers the woeful color reproduction and thin, tinny sound of videotape -- qualities that degraded further every time you passed it through the VCR -- may wonder what the "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" director finds to eulogize in this happily obsolete technology.
But home video was more than a distribution format. It marked a turning point in our relationship with film. For the first time, movies became a tangible artifact for the audience, something we could own and even exercise some control over. That is, we could press Play, Stop, Pause, Rewind and Fast-forward at will.
And we could press Record. It's this last function that inspires Gondry, not drop-outs and late fees.
Set in Passaic, New Jersey, in a blatantly anachronistic neighborhood rental store, "Be Kind Rewind" is cut-rate Frank Capra, a corny comic fable about a video clerk, Mike (Mos Def), and his bad-news buddy Jerry (Jack Black), the latter who accidentally erases the store's entire stock after a misadventure at the local power plant.
To stave off ruin and cover up their mistake from the owner (Danny Glover), the pair hit on the harebrained scheme of shooting their own do-it-yourself adaptations of Hollywood hits and passing them off in the original packaging. First up: "Ghostbusters," with Jerry decked out in aluminum foil for the Bill Murray part, their taciturn pal Wilson (Irv Gooch) pressed into impersonating a possessed Sigourney Weaver, and Mike playing everyone else.
Their stunt may not fool anyone, but the customers find they prefer the home-made version, and soon the boys are churning out new "Sweded" tapes on a daily basis: "Rush Hour 2," "The Lion King," "Driving Miss Daisy," you name it.
These mini films-within-the-film are a lot of fun, and not just for the spectacle of Jack Black playing Jessica Tandy one minute and Sylvester Stallone the next. A wizard of lo-fi who's done his best work in pop videos, Gondry gets off on the challenge of re-creating, say, a trick shot from "2001" with no more resources than you might find in back of your local garage.
The movie's subtext is plain (plain enough to have earned a withering put-down from Hollywood trade paper Variety): It's better to create than to consume; if I can do this, you can too.
Such egalitarian zeal is all very well, but "Be Kind Rewind" inadvertently highlights some of the drawbacks associated with the amateur ethos. It is Gondry's most accessible film, but also his skimpiest.
As "The Science of Sleep" demonstrated, Gondry is no writer, but that hasn't stopped him from trying again -- and again, the results don't bare scrutiny. His originality dries up when it comes to plot (hackneyed and nonsensical) and character (thin at best). Jack Black has the force of personality to bluster through it and generates the lion's share of the movie's sporadic laughs, but Mos Def mostly looks like the dog ate his script (what there was of it).
"Be Kind Rewind" is more up to date than it appears. It's really a closet celebration of the fan community cinema of tribute, pastiche and parody that flourishes on Internet sites like YouTube (where Gondry has already posted a Sweded version of his own film). Appropriately, the movie itself would be much improved chopped into seven or eight sketches and posted online without the mediocre connective tissue.
Then again, I guess that's why they invented the fast-forward button.
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