Michel Gondry, celebrated as a visionary music video creator and director of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," has as his (visual) bread-and-butter an unmatched skill at short, controlled bursts of childlike flight-of-fancy whimsy often expressed as aggressively-overloaded moving collages of inviting, colorful randomness. Or, in english, he likes to pack the frame with D.Y.I.-looking effects/sets at an affectionately dizzy pace. When he's working from a great script, as he was in the nearly-flawless "Eternal Sunshine," this skill is a great modifying-asset... when he ISN'T, you wind up with well-meaning but hopelessly-adrift films punctuated by isolated moments of greatness - like last year's "Science of Sleep" and now this.
Let it not be said that there isn't promise, since at least in the premise Gondry conjures what almost feels like the lost script for the best 80s comedy Dan Aykroyd and Jon Belushi never made: A dopey slacker (Jack Black) accidentally erases all the tapes in the threatened-with-forclosure video store clerked by his buddy (Mos Def,) and the two of them hatch a ridiculously-desperate plan to replace the blank movies with remakes enacted/filmmed by themselves from memory/guesswork and on the cheap with occasionally clever do-it-yourself effects. Rather than being fooled or angry, the local folks end up loving their work and soon they're doing brisk business shooting and renting their own wacky products... until big meanie movie studios and land developers show up to shut them down.
It's a great idea, a kind of "Cinema Paradiso" for the Movie Geek generation, and in at least one respect Gondry is perfect for his own material: The self-made (they dub them "sweded") movies - and the scenes detailing their production, are tailor-made for the director's sensibilities and instincts. Taken on their own, absent even the context of the movie-proper, these sequences aren't just the best things in the film but some of the best scenes in any movie I've seen all year. They're love-letters to imaginative low-rent art in general, and it's not hard to predict that any film lover or film maker who every messed around with a camcorder to try making their own stuff as kids is going to be struck deep and personal by this.
The problem is, these individual scenes are surrounded by the rest of the movie that just does not work.
It comes down to two key issues: First, Gondry's screenwriting ability - as displayed here, at least - is extremely lacking. Characters mumble through their lines as though ordered to improv, structure is almost nonexistant, character arcs are predictable and sloppy and story points have to be FORCED into place in order to make the plot move at all. And that's not even getting into the fact that the attempt at social-commentary in the subplot of the store's owner (Danny Glover) trying to imitate the blandly-mainstream business model of the Big Chain Video Store nearby goes nowhere and pretty-much falls on it's face.
Secondly, well... it's a problem of tone. The short remakes, as I said, offer Gondry the perfect outlet for his unique sensibilities; but he lets said sensibilities spill out all over the rest of the film and the result kills any hope it might've had of fitting together. The "sweded" flicks are so zany and wacky that they need to be as APART from the 'real world' of the film in order to be truly effective, but Gondry frames the 'real world' in the same silly-for-silly's-sake terms as the shorts: Why do these people go so buggy for these gonzo movies when their everyday world is just as gonzo? I just couldn't escape the impression that the film would improve TREMENDOUSLY if a more "conventional" filmmaker had handled the main story and let Gondry go nuts on the "swede-ing" scenes.
Still.... that 2nd act tracking-shot montage of everything from King Kong to Men In Black being remade? That's damn brilliance right there.
FINAL RATING: 5/10