French celluloid sorcerer Michel Gondry delivers his most playful, accessible and subtextually sparkling slice of bespoke whimsy to date in the follow-up to his stifling 2005 quirk mire, ‘The Science of Sleep’.
This time, he accompanies us on the Capra-esque journey of highly-strung VHS rental shop clerk, Mike (Mos Def) and his skittish, mildly unhinged mechanic buddy Jerry (Jack Black) as they are forced – via myriad helter-skelter plot machinations – to locate the journeyman director deep inside them and remake all the films in the store when they are inadvertently erased. In doing so, they manage to convert the present-day dead-end town of Passaic, New Jersey into a teeming, ramshackle film lot where customised (or ‘Sweded’) versions of ’80s popcorn classics such as ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ are rolled out at a dizzying rate and perform a roaring trade.
On paper, it sounds eccentric, but this is all part of Gondry’s vision. He presents us with a film whose simple structure could have tripped from the tongue of any vacuous pony-tailed studio exec (a community coming together to save a dilapidated video shop? It could only have come from the ’80s!).But Gondry uses this premise to flip open the ribcage of cinema and allow us to peruse its blood, bones and sinew, and really see how they flow, fit and flex into a glorious whole.
The magnitude of Gondry’s visual ingenuity is consistently jaw-dropping: with the aid of some washing machine innards and a white jump suit, he manages to reduce the iconic rotating space station scene from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ to a kind of cinematic primordial ooze, at once presenting the infinite potential of the camera to create, subvert and renew reality while also screaming, ‘Yes, you can do this too!’
Because this is a film in thrall to the fact that we have camera phones, YouTube and iMovie at our fingertips, and that there are people who go out there and make movies – just for the hell of it. But the joyful process of filmmaking is not its sole concern: there’s also a fondness for archaic technology (you could even read it as a clarion call to a generation weened on in-built obsolescence) to the point that CGI is rejected in favour of in-camera effects which lend the film a ragged visual energy comparable to the ’80s classics to which it pays homage.
In the end, though, it’s this total respect for its ironic source material which has enabled Gondry to achieve his greatest coup. In a postmodern rendering of the archetypal ’80s schmaltz finale, the director picks at our heartstrings like a cigar-box banjo, assembling the entire town together to watch Mike and Jerry’s fictitious biopic of local jazz legend Fats Waller in what must be one of the most nakedly romantic salutes to the restorative power of cinema since the ‘montage of kisses’ scene from ‘Cinema Paradiso’. It’s an awesomely simple and powerful moment, echoed by an earlier declamation from Mia Farrow’s doddery Mrs Falewicz as she enjoys one of Mike and Jerry’s remakes: ‘A toast to movies with heart and soul!’ Hear hear!