Some will no doubt cringe at this introductory point, but it’s nearly impossible to ignore the fact that, in an odd twist of something vaguely resembling fate, both Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino have offered up their respective post-Grindhouse films on the same release date. The comparative results are an illustration in contrast, but the total effect is that Tarantino has assumed the role of the risk-taking director (complete with a chutzpah transfusion), while Rodriguez chose to retreat to the much safer territory of frenetic and rather mindless children’s adventure films. To provide the starkest of comparisons between these two directors’ latest efforts, consider this: Tarantino’s characters take on the Nazi regime in a most brutal manner; Rodriguez’s cast faces off against an anthropomorphized creature that I’ll refer to as “Homicidal Booger.” Clearly, the latter squanders the talents of a director who composes his own musical scores, as is the case with Shorts, which was also written and co-produced by Rodriguez. Of course, switching between schlockfests and kiddieland has, generally, remained a lucrative strategy for Rodriguez, but Shorts aims even lower than those dreadful Spy Kids movies. Indeed, this is terrifying shit, people.
Altogether, Shorts consists of five interrelated episodes (the titular “shorts”) plus a one-minute episode before the opening credits. The five main episodes are merely shuffled around for no particular reason other than Rodriguez seems to find it nifty to delivering his version of old buddy Tarantino’s non-linear structure here. That is, this is the ADD-dictated, remote-control rendering, complete with “pause,” “rewind,” “fast-forward,” but, sadly, missing the “mute” button. The story, as narrated by Toby “Toe” Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), follows life in a neighborhood-community (in the strictest sense) called Black Falls, a place where every adult resident works at Black Box Industries and all schoolchildren are indoctrinated at company-sponsored schools. Toby’s parents, known only as Dad Thompson (Jon Cryer) and Mom Thompson (the ubiquitous Leslie Mann), are perpetually distracted by their jobs. Then again, Black Falls is an extreme version of what one might imagine that living in Redmond, Washington and working for Microsoft is like. Mr. Black (James Spader) heads up this company, which produces his “Black Box” invention, an all-in-one gadget that functions as phone, PDA, mirror, toaster, and countless other useless functions. Black is the prototypical nightmare boss, who places his employees under constant duress and uses a video telephone device to interrupt random dinner table conversations. All employees live in unmitigated fear that they’ll soon be fired, and, consequently, forced to move from the community, One wonders why anyone would put up with this sort of thing from an employer, for the so-called life of Black Falls residents mostly consists of work-related phone calls and text messages flowing at such a constant stream that one cannot even enjoy a little family time. Then again, Rodriguez has never been a subtle storyteller.
Other characters are haphazardly introduced. Toby has a largely ornamental older sister, Stacey, who only serves to take the audience inside the virtually sterile home of Dr. Noseworthy (William H. Macy), a germaphobic scientist, who allows her inside to tutor his son, Nose Noseworthy (Jake Short), only after passing through a decontamination chamber. Then, there are Black’s children, Cole (Devon Gearhart) and Helvetica (Jolie Vanier), who are the school bullies making Toby’s life miserable beyond reproach. It all grows a bit tedious until three siblings—Laser (Leo Howard), Loogie (Trevor Gagnon). Lug (Rebel Rodriguez)—discover a rainbow-colored rock that will grant wishes to its holder. Naturally, it all starts out lightheartedly with wishes for unlimited supplies of chocolate bars, but, as the rock passes hands, the wishes become progressively dangerous until one of the “smart” kids decides to launch the rock into oblivion. But the rock keeps coming back, much to the disappointment of the film’s audience, who will find the director’s pacing both obnoxiously frenetic yet amazingly boring. The abundant use of CGI looks terribly amateurish and is particularly egregious during the “Homicidal Booger” and “Giant Crocodiles Scale Medieval Fortress” scenes.
Yet there are so many flaws in this unentertaining adventure film that it’s impossible to highlight them all. Aside from the gross-out humor (one character even gets pooped on by a Pterodactyl), the most damaging aspect of Shorts is its heavy-handed lecturing, not necessarily towards children (who merely get the standard “be careful what you wish for” warning) but towards the parents in the audience. Yes, technology does tend to dehumanize society, but adults generally don’t appreciate being talked down to while their children are present, particularly when the lecturer is a filmmaker who not only deems it necessary to insert a Homicidal Booger into his film but also casts two young actresses, Kat Dennings and Jolie Vanier, who both physically resemble Rodriguez’s current muse and fiancé, Rose McGowan, at different ages. Luckily for Rodriguez, he found a bit of talent in Vanier, who is also a bit gothy in a Wednesday Addams sort of way, but Dennings gives just as lifeless a performance as the rest of the cast. As an added bonus, Shorts should also be credited with deftly engineering the sudden death of my enduring virtual hard-on for James Spader, and I’m not just speaking superficially, folks. Although Spader looks absolutely horrible and nearly unrecognizable, this is perhaps his most ineffective performance as a would-be villain. Duckie would be very disappointed.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.