In Shorts, imagination runs a little too wild
By Jared Peterson
Shorts, the new film from Spy Kids director Robert Rodriguez, takes the form of a series of crisscrossing “short” episodes, told out of chronological order (because, well, it’s a kooky, crazy way to tell a story), each focusing on a different set of characters and hijinks in a fictional suburban housing development. What ties it all together is our narrator, Toby “Toe” Thompson (Jimmy Bennett) and a rainbow-striped rock that grants wishes to anyone who holds it. Toe is your standard, long-suffering weirdo, with distracted parents (played by Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann), a brooding older sister (Kat Dennings), some imaginary friends and, of course, his own personal attachment of bullies poised and ready to dump him into the nearest trashcan. Toe’s nemesis and leader of this pack is Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier), a preppy-goth misanthrope whose undivided attention Toe believes is a secret crush. [Cut to Toe upside down in trashcan.] Helvetica’s dad, Carbon Black (James Spader), is a shady entrepreneur and the mastermind behind “The Box”, a mighty, morphing handheld device that can act as anything you like: laptop, cell phone, toaster, what have you (clearly meant as a dig on the iPhone and its never-ending stream of increasingly esoteric applications).
Oh, yeah—the magic rock. In the connected stories, the rock falls into the hands of a succession of kids, each with his own goofy qualities—Toe the oddball, Loogie (Trevor Gagnon) the hapless troublemaker, Nose (Jake Short) the nerdy germophobe. The grown-ups get their accidental wishes, too. Things get weirder and weirder, lives and events tied into tighter knots, and, as always, getting what you wish for isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Writer-director-cinematographer-editor-composer-effects supervisor Robert Rodriguez is the super-hyphenated mastermind behind such films as Desperado, Sin City and the schlock horrorfest Planet Terror. With the help and inspiration of his own young children, he also created the hugely popular Spy Kids franchise. His fertile imagination, highly stylized palette and unwillingness to delegate have given him the reputation as a maverick auteur. But the mix of young-at-heart irreverence and unchecked, unmonitored freedom is more volatile than you might think, and it backfires here. Shorts is about kid stuff—bullies, boogers, bad parenting—but by the same token it has the scattered, hyperbolic feel of a ten-year-old’s candy-fuelled after-school gabfest. With little to direct or rein in the action, jokes fall flat, lines sound tinny and hollow, and wacky stuff happens for its own small sake. Irreverence and imagination will only carry a story so far; in the end, it takes a discipline to tell it well. As king of his own castle, Rodriguez may have become trapped behind its walls.
There’s no trace here of the traditional swear words, unless you count Helvetica’s abbreviated nickname. But kids readily call one another “freak”, “dork”, “weirdo”, and combinations like “dumb-butt”, “dumb-head” and (I’m not sure I heard this right) “monk-head”. The movie uses fart noises to transition between the different episodes—these little gems got the only big laughs from the young audience at my screening—and the plot demands the use of words like “booger”, “Lougie” (a proper name here) and “toe jam”. There’s some silly grossness: the aforementioned boogers, one of which morphs into a big, angry snot monster; pterodactyl droppings; pukey goop brought back from a journey inside a crocodile’s digestive system. Slapstick humor includes slips, trips, head smacks, and copious trashcan dumpings. Toe gets pelted with rocks, some of which explode like artillery shells around him as he flees. A crowd of spellbound partygoers breaks into a free-for-all (played for comedy). We get walking crocodiles, hissing cobras and a giant wasp and beetle. There is some chemistry-class combustibility, and a chase involving a recklessly handled rocket bike. Toe’s parents almost but don’t quite kiss, and another boy’s crush on Toe’s sister is signaled by Issac-Hayes-esque music whenever he sees her.
Opening day screenings featured the following previews: Astro Boy (PG), a computer-animated update of the 1960s cartoon—some peril and fighting, including machine gun fire, a glimpse of a robot head that looks like a skull, a roaring red robot (the name of my new band), and one use of the word “butt”; The Blind Side (not yet rated), with Sandra Bullock playing a real-life, do-gooding suburban mom; Where the Wild Things Are (PG), based on the quintessential children’s book—just a couple of lines about eating people; Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (not yet rated), a computer-animated comedy (and with any luck, a triumphant return of the awesome team behind the superbly hilarious cartoon series “Clone High” [Editor’s note: I’m pretty sure we’re the only people who ever watched that show.])—some edible precipitation, persistent slapstick and cartoony destruction; Toy Story and Toy Story 2 (both G), which will be screened back to back and in 3-D; and an ad for a one-night-only screening of Eureka Seven: good night, sleep tight, young lovers (not rated, but basically a PG-13), the latest episode in an ongoing Japanese anime series.
Jared Peterson most recently reviewed District 9.