by HELEN GEIB
Writer-director Robert Rodriguez’s latest family film Shorts does nothing to change my long-held opinion that Rodriguez is a much better director than he is a writer.
The film is narrated by Toby, one of a group of neighborhood kids who find a rainbow-colored stone that grants wishes. Toby is an ordinary, except friendless, boy living in the science-fictiony setting of the company town of the Black Box Corporation. Other principals in the children’s group are Helvetica, who bullies Toby because she has a crush on him; adventure-craving Loogie and his brothers Lug and Laser; and Nose, who picks his. Each of the kids has his or her chance to make a few wishes, and their respective misadventures pick up on the character traits I’ve described. Toby is visited by mischievous tiny aliens after wishing for friends, Loogie conjures up a castle protected by alligators and cobras, Nose is menaced by a booger monster, and so on in a series of disconnected short segments.
Adults who have their own run-ins with the wishing stone are Toby’s workaholic parents the Thompsons (played by Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer); Helvetica’s over-bearing dad Mr. Black (James Spader in the film’s standout comedic performance), founder and owner of the company at the literal and figurative center of town; and Nose’s father Dr. Noseworthy (William H. Macy), an extreme germophobe. The adults’ respective misadventures, which are integrated into some of the children’s adventures, likewise reflect their basic character traits.
The best thing about the movie is the way the story is told through those disconnected short segments (“short features” rather than short people being the source of the title). The film casts Toby’s narration as the telling of a tall tale in five main episodes, each introduced by a jokey title card. Picking up on the idea that a child is doing the telling, the beginning and middle episodes are arranged out of chronological order. It’s a fun conceit and gives the film a needed energy boost as Toby jumps back and forth in time trying to explain everything that happened in that crazy week.
The framework is clever, but the substance is flimsy and repetitive. The film works over the same few comic situations and running jokes until they’ve been beaten to death, while the characters’ names are indicative of the intellectual level of the humor. There’s an almost manic insistence that the consequences of each wish outdo what came before in wackiness and quirkiness. There’s no subtlety or modulation, and it’s not long before the whole enterprise just feels terribly strained and desperate to amuse. The final segment is simply awful, as all the main characters and some faceless extras end up standing around in a circle looking foolish while people pick up the stone in turn and make wishes even a small child would know are idiotic. There’s also a lot of not very good CGI that makes the whole movie look cheap.
While I wearied of the film well before it was over (despite the bare 90 minute running time), it is harmless and patently well-intentioned family entertainment. The kids’ stories and the adults’ stories alike teach unassailable lessons. Where the youngsters learn the value of friendship (as well as learning that wishes granted by magic always go wrong somehow), their parents are reminded to slow down, turn off the smart phone, and pay more attention to the people around them.
1 1/2 stars