Jack Black's back in Be Kind Rewind

Plus, Charlie Bartlett recycles Rushmore

click to enlarge AND ACTION! Mos Def and Jack Black star as video clerks who try to recreate Hollywood blockbusters in Be Kind Rewind. - New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema
AND ACTION! Mos Def and Jack Black star as video clerks who try to recreate Hollywood blockbusters in Be Kind Rewind.

The recurring daydream that opens Charlie Bartlett isn't encouraging. A beaming Charlie (Anton Yelchin) stands before an arena full of adoring fans, shouting out self-help clichés like "You are not alone!" It's Charlie's signature fantasy, but we can only wonder at a young kid whose idea of rock-star glory is imagining himself an infomercial guru regurgitating decades-old psychobabble.

The reality is that Charlie Barrett is just another precocious, privileged 17-year-old who'll do whatever it takes to get people to like him. This includes mass-producing fake IDs, an offense for which he's been booted out of the latest in a long line of prep schools. Having exhausted the good graces of every posh private school for miles, Charlie's left with no choice but to join the unwashed masses at — horror of horrors — public school.

If this is all sounding a bit familiar, then you've likely seen Wes Anderson's Rushmore, a little movie that Charlie Bartlett writer Gustin Nash and director John Poll seem determined to recycle for a new generation. The similarity between the two films is simply too obvious to ignore and invites all sorts of unfavorable comparisons.

After being subjected to some cursory bullying at his new school, Charlie too-quickly learns to make friends and influence people by supplying them with various powerful and highly coveted prescription drugs. Simultaneously, he begins playing shrink to his classmates, freely dispensing psychiatric advice in the boys' bathroom.

Also present and accounted for is the obligatory love interest (Kat Dennings), a hottie who never fails to call our hero by his full name (it's always Charlie Bartlett, never just Charlie, as if he's some larger-than-life icon). The girlfriend also turns out to be the daughter of the school principal — Robert Downey Jr., who basically functions in the Bill Murray role here, locked in a love-hate tango with the young protagonist over their mutual object of affection.

Downey is the movie's secret weapon, both believable and borderline dangerous, but there's not much else about Charlie Bartlett that's particularly convincing. Too many of the characters are lazily written (the school bully, the depressed loner, the slow, fat kid); the movie's sense of ironic detachment comes and goes (the drug pushing is sometimes played for laughs, sometimes for pathos); and the quirks are often uncomfortably forced. After School Special messages even begin to creep in during the final act, and Charlie's daydreams of glory never feel anything but warmed over.

The characters in Be Kind Rewind also deal in dreams, recreating Hollywood fantasies in their own oddly personalized, lo-fi way. This is the latest movie from Michel Gondry, and you could say the same thing about him.

Gondry also directed The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and although Be Kind Rewind largely avoids the provocative, in-your-face artistry of those earlier films, it's a uniquely entertaining project that only he could have made.

Jack Black is one of the stars of Be Kind Rewind, which might make you wonder why this actor shows up in so many movies by filmmakers transitioning from the art-film ghetto to the fringes of the mainstream. Black was also in Richard Linklater's breakthrough School of Rock, and there's a case to be made that Be Kind Rewind is to Gondry's earlier, artier films what School of Rock was to Linklater's Slacker. The process in both cases is not so much a dumbing down as it is a smoothing out and an opening up. There's certainly some simplification and mellowing going on but barely a whiff of selling out.

All of Gondry's quirky obsessions are still here, but you have to know where to look. We get a truly linear story in Be Kind Rewind, but the movie is also filled with charmingly cheesy special effects that reveal an abiding affection for the raw, the retro and all the dusty, unloved relics of pop culture. And whenever he can get away with it, Gondry indulges his inner anarchist, folding intentional technical flaws and faded, fuzzy film stock into the movie's textural mix like a DJ sampling vinyl pops and hisses.

Videotape is Gondry's vinyl, so Be Kind Rewind takes place, naturally enough, in a video rental store, where owner Danny Glover and employee Mos Def count down the days until extinction. The absurd plot would be right at home in one of those awful '80s flicks lining the store's ratty shelves: After a botched attempt at sabotaging a power plant, Mos's pal Jerry (Black) comes home with a magnetized brain and winds up inadvertently erasing every tape in the store. A harebrained scheme ensues, in which Def and Black replace all of the store's videos with their own homegrown, shot-on-the-fly versions — super-amateurish but heartfelt productions that become inexplicably popular with everyone who sees them.

These hilarious, no-budget camcorder versions of films like Ghostbusters, The Lion King, Robocop and Driving Miss Daisy are by far the best thing about Gondry's film, but there's a lot more to like here. Be Kind Rewind rails against big, formulaic Hollywood movies in a way that's as clever as it is subtle, and it takes the piss out of movies with "heart" while eventually becoming one itself. Gondry has made better films before, but he's never made one so sweet and simply enjoyable we barely notice how truly subversive it is.

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