Watching Robert Rodriguez's Shorts is akin to watching a home movie made by your neighbor's kids if they happened to be the offspring of a millionaire filmmaker. Just imagine it. The filmmaker would think that everything his kids did in the name of family entertainment would be delightfully inventive, hysterically funny, and perfectly timed. You would probably disagree. Shorts is shockingly bad, an awkwardly conceived comedy that doesn't seem aimed at children as much as written, produced, and directed by them. Sucking in typically talented actors like Leslie Mann, William H. Macy, Jon Cryer, and James Spader, only the debut of a talented young child actress saves Shorts from being one of the worst films of the year. Even the potential of the young star cannot come anywhere close to saving a film with more gross-out humor and poorly-timed comedy than several Eddie Murphy family comedies put together. Shorts feels way too long.
Even recapping the plot of Shorts feels like a chore. Cut together as a series of episodes or "shorts," Rodriguez's story centers around a company called Black Box and the community in which its employees live and work. Headed by Mr. Black (Spader), the company has developed a product that can be whatever you want it to be from a music player to a baby monitor to a toaster to a nose hair clipper. But it's not enough for the power-mad Black. The boss tasks his employees, the Thompsons (Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer) to find the next big thing to crush the competition. As if on cue, a rainbow-colored wishing rock falls from the sky, an item that can literally make any wish come true.
The wishing rock works its way through the Black Box neighborhood from kid to kid. Lead Toe Thompson (the everywhere-this-summer Jimmy Bennett of Star Trek and Orphan) uses it to deal with the school bullies (who happen to be the offspring of his parents' boss). Loogie (Trevor Gagnon) and his brother Lug and Laser fight over the rock, wishing more and more deadly creatures into existence. Nose Noseworthy (Jake Short) and his dad (William H. Macy) end up fighting a giant booger (yes, I said a giant booger). Eventually, even the adults get into the "wishes-gone-wrong" theme with the Thompsons ending up regretting a comment about getting closer and Mr. Black becoming way too powerful.
One of the bullies (who really likes our hero Toe, of course) is the delightfully named Helvetica Black and there is no exaggeration when I say that newcomer Jolie Vanier is the ONLY reason Shorts is notable at all. The 11-year-old who bears a strong resemblance to a young Christina Ricci has a wonderfully expressive face and something the rest of the child cast is missing – perfect comic timing. I hate to be mean to children, but the rest of the young cast is awkwardly bad, as if they're coming up with their lines as the film rolls and their parents refused to let them do another take. Mann, Spader, Cryer, and Macy all look bored. Even the great Kat Dennings (as Toe's older sister) fails to register.
Bad acting is one thing and certainly not uncommon in kids movies, but it's just an indication of the "neighborhood project" feel of the entire film. The "short film" concept is woefully underdeveloped. The story jumps back and forth like a Tarantino film because Toe Thompson can't remember exactly what happened and in what order, but none of the short films stand on their own. Why not actually commit to your concept and make short films, perhaps even with different styles or film stocks? I know it seems harsh to get down on the half-assedness of the execution of the concept of Shorts but it's indicative of my response to the entire film. The effects, plot, characters, dialogue – all of it feels halfway done, and plays like it was made by a neighborhood kid without an editor, producer, or even a parent to tell them that their home movie doesn't warrant having tickets sold.
Rating: ONE BONE