Warner Bros. Pictures | 2009 | Rated PG | 89 minutes
Robert Rodriguez (SPY KIDS, SIN CITY) is known for making wildly entertaining movies with intriguing characters who, while at many times may be outsiders, are still able to draw the audience in. SHORTS however is not one of these movies. Following the story of a group of kids who find a magic rock that can grant any wish, SHORTS has on the surface the appearance that it could be a fun, family film, but it unfortunately is far from it. Divided into five short films, “Alien8ted,” “The Wishing Rock,” “Nose Noseworthy,” “The Miscommunicators” and “The End,” SHORTS approaches its storytelling from the point of view of Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), a kid whose only friends that he spends any real amount of time with are all imaginary. Living in the Black Falls community, a suburb built around an evil corporation that makes the must have technological gadget the “Black Box,” Jimmy soon finds himself in possession of the magic rock and chaos ensues. While the premise could be promising, why does SHORTS not come close to working?
Robert Rodriguez is known for his inventive approach to filmmaking, but here the gimmick of having the story split into separate short films feels beyond forced and contrived. Adding to this, Rodriguez chooses to show the short films not in a linear timeline, but rather in a disjointed one, beginning his film with the second of five shorts. To transition between the separate elements then, Rodriguez relies on a voice over from Toe Thompson who tries to relate the events of the movie to the audience, but who consistently can’t remember what exactly happened in what order. The picture of the action will be frozen on screen and then either fast-forwarded or rewound with the accompanying video control symbols flashing on the screen as Thompson states, “wait, maybe we should go back” or “no, that’s not what happened next.” While this gimmick may be cute the first time, it is overused and becomes very annoying after a while. There’s nothing wrong with splitting the film into respective shorts, complete with title cards as Rodriguez has done, but having to resort to the hokey transitions just to make an unnecessary fractured timeline work is poor filmmaking at best.
The performances in the film by the adults are shockingly bad. With a cast that includes James Spader (STARGATE), Jon Cryer (“Two and a Half Men”), William H. Macy (FARGO) and Leslie Mann (FUNNY PEOPLE), all wonderfully talented actors, one would expect each of their characters to bring something more to the screen. Unfortunately though, Rodriguez constrains each of them to never moving past a single emotional plane for their character, resulting in a movie filled only with caricatures of stereotypes. Spader is bad. Mann and Cryer are overworked. Macy is obsessive. There is no substance at all, and while the roles should be approached more from the fun, family film perspective as opposed to delivering Oscar caliber performances, the fact is, they are dull to watch. While Rodriguez has been able to get some great performances from his actors, such as Johnny Depp’s great turn in ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO or Mike Judge’s in SPY KIDS, here he does not and instead litters the screen with lifeless and flat performances. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum though, SHORTS is a great lesson in what a filmmaker should not be looking for in their extras, for the extras give distracting and over the top reactions in almost every scene they are in. Yes, the action of the actual plot is boring enough that you will be looking around the screen for something interesting to watch for a bit.
What is interesting to note is while the plot centers on an evil corporation whose “Black Box” has revolutionized technology and is the current “it” product, very much modeled on the Apple craze with even the logo for the “Version X Black Box” looking eerily and litigiously similar to Mac’s OS X logo, SHORTS has commercialization written all over it. While it is true that product placement is a big business in Hollywood, in SHORTS it is just painfully too obvious. When one of the kids wishes for an unlimited supply of candy bars, he of course gets nothing but Reese’s Nutrageous bars with labels proudly displayed. While many of the home furnishings on the various sets look directly out of an IKEA catalogue, there is a prominently parked IKEA truck on the kid’s street to reinforce the product placement. Will SHORTS do for Nutrageous what E.T. did for Reese’s Pieces? Not at all.
To find a single bright spot in an otherwise dismal picture, one would have to look to the visual effects. Rodriguez and his Troublemaker Studios in Austin are very well known for being able to create visually stunning films with great looking special effects for well below what the usual Hollywood effects laden film would cost, and he has done so again here. The only problem is, some of the visual effects created may be a little too high on the gross out scale, specifically in regard to the character the kids must battle in the “Nose Noseworthy” segment. Use your imagination. Yes, it is that bad.
All in all, SHORTS is a very poor movie from a talented filmmaker and cast and if you do have to sit through it, you will be hoping you had your own magic rock to wish the movie would just end.