Robert Rodriguez loads his shotgun full of slapstick and CGI and starts firing
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Jimmy Bennett, Jon Cryer, Leslie Mann, James Spader, William H. Macy
I don’t get Robert Rodriguez much these days. He’s directed some undeniably kick-ass pieces of cinema (El Mariachi, From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City, Planet Terror). Yet his career has been tragically distracted with silly kiddie fare (those increasingly frantic Spy Kids films, the execrable Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D). Here we sit, waiting patiently for Sin City 2 or that promised Barbarella remake with his hottie home wrecker girlfriend Rose McGowan or that adaptation of Mike Allred’s Madman comic book or the live-action John Carter, Warlord of Mars or Predator 3 or Desperado 4—all cool freaking ideas linked at one time or another to Rodriguez. But what do we get instead? Shorts, another juvenile fantasy seemingly designed as babysitting material for the filmmaker’s five kids (Rocket, Racer, Rebel, Rogue and Rhiannon) and nothing else.
The movie is styled as a series of short films, all of which center around the theme of a magical rainbow-colored rock that grants wishes. In actuality, it’s not a series of short films, but a single, disjointed fantasy told in patchwork chapters. For no discernible reason, the story’s various chapters are told out of order, as if this were Memento for elementary schoolers. The one thing you could never accuse Rodriguez of is not trying too hard. Like a bouncy castle filled with laughing gas and ringed with fireworks, Shorts is a whole lot of bad ideas waiting to backfire.
So, for no discernible rhyme or reason, this magical rock appears out of nowhere and lands in the strange(ish), Tim Burton Lite suburban community of Black Falls. Black Falls is run by the creepy Black Box corporation, which builds an iPod-like übergadget that can turn into just about anything—from a cell phone to a baby monitor to a pet groomer to a toaster. (Funny how the film’s writer / director / cinematographer / editor / original music composer misses the moral about trying to do too much and ending up doing too little.) Running the Black Box company is megalomaniacal suit-and-tie villain Carbon Black (James Spader, overacting). Working for Black Box are Mr. and Mrs. Thompson (Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann, underutilized). And living under the corporate-funded Thompson roof is our main character, young “Toe” Thompson (Jimmy Bennett, who last annoyed on screen as Mustang-stealing pre-pube James T. Kirk in Star Trek).
Braces-wearing outcast Toe finds the magical wishing rock and wishes he had some friends, at which point he is graced with a quartet of tiny flying saucers straight out of 1987’s *batteries not included. (Huh?) Eventually, Toe learns some valuable lesson about friendship, helpfully engraved on the front end of a sledgehammer by Mr. Rodriguez. Then it’s on to some other “short film” about another resident of Black Falls finding the rock, making a wish and learning another valuable lesson. Rodriguez clearly wants to make some sort of junior-grade version of “The Twilight Zone” here, but the territory is already well-trodden—namely by a little series called “Goosebumps,” which has milked every horror and sci-fi cliché dry since 1992.
The five stories presented here are all quite silly and tarted up with cartoonish characters, fart noises, booger references and running jokes that go nowhere fast. No idea was tossed away as too ridiculous or too illogical. As a result, Shorts is a everything-and-the-kitchen-sink mishmash of CG robots and dinosaurs and alligators and space aliens and giant booger monsters. It wants so much to be boundlessly creative, but the best word for it is indulgent.
Shorts feels like it was written with heavy input from Rodriguez’ kids (as was Sharkboy and Lavagirl). Look, Bob, everybody thinks their kids are brilliant and talented and beautiful. It ain’t necessarily so. Although Rodriguez crams his preteen brood into as many acting roles as possible here, none of them demonstrates any recognizable talent. Shorts is essentially a gaudy, goofy, frenetically assembled home movie with a $30 million budget. Screen it at your next family picnic, Mr. Rodriguez, and kindly get to work on Machete.