Robert Rodriguez is a true commercial schizophrenic. Whenever he steps behind the camera, you’re not sure which version of the indie maverick you’re going to get — the genre-loving film geek who plunders the schlock and B-movie pantheon for his inspiration, or the devoted dad who wants to craft kid-vid fare that doesn’t talk down to the demographic. It’s either Spy Kids or Planet Terror. With Shorts we get the paternal side. This hyperactive pixie stick smashed onto celluloid finds the residents of a small Texas corporate community dealing with a mysterious object, a tyrannical CEO, and the over-the-top juvenilia both can — and will — create.
Our narrator is little Toby Thompson (Jimmy Bennett) whose parents (Leslie Mann, Jon Cryer) work for the Black Box corporation, makers of a multi-functional PDA-like device. Their boss is the egomaniacal Mr. Black (James Spader), who has two little hellspawn of his own — bullies Cole (Devon Gearhart) and Helvetica (Jolie Vanier). Constantly picked on at school, one day Toby finds a rainbow-colored rock that appears to grant wishes. Before long, we see how said stone affects the lives of neighbors Nose (Jake Short), Dr. Noseworthy (William H. Macy), brothers Lug (Rebel Rodriguez), Laser (Leo Howard), and Loogie (Trevor Gagnon), as well as his own sister Stacey (Kat Dennings). But when Mr. Black himself sees what the object can do, he must have it for his very own.
Told in quick, short-attention-span bursts of mixed-up narrative and decorated with a pile of Rodriguez’s own homemade DIY eye candy, Shorts doesn’t even pretend to be a quality family film. Instead, this is Saturday matinee moviemaking at its silliest, a high-tech take on the kind of incoherent goofiness that producers like K. Gordon Murray got rich off of 40 years ago. It’s a grade-schooler’s idea book pilfered for its most youth-oriented ideas. Rodriguez never gets deeper here than the standard ‘be careful what you wish for’ moral at the end of the tale. In between, we get dung beetles, a giant killer booger, an alligator army, small fry aliens, and lots of pre-adolescent slapstick.
Because he’s so busy throwing ideas at the screen, desperate to see what sticks, Rodriguez paints himself into a creative corner. At first, the energy level is so high, the antics so rapid-fire and fun, that you don’t notice the problems with the plot. But once Mr. Black decides that the rainbow rock is the answer to his competitive advantage issues, the need to wrap things up curtails the chaos. The result is a repeat of all the items we’ve seen before merged with yet another lame Transformers take (the third one this summer, after the Michael Bay sequel and G-Force). Not that the wee ones will mind — this material is geared directly toward their scattered sense of entertainment. As long as there are plenty of pratfalls, they’ll be more than satisfied.
Shorts will remind you of the ‘cool’ parent, the grown-up that all the kids want to be around because he panders directly to their idea of devil-may-care joy. If those over 13 don’t ‘get it,’ this movie doesn’t care. Rodriguez will simply wait until his commercial cred builds up again and then make that long-awaited sequel to Sin City to pacify the more mature members of his fanbase. Like the writer who crafts bedtime stories for his own offspring, Shorts is this filmmaker’s way of honoring the somewhat insular needs of those closest to him. So this time around, Rodriguez is vying for Father of the Year. Next time around, who knows?
The DVD includes two of Rodriguez’s ten-minute film school featurettes.
That gerbil’s in here somewhere.