Directed by Robert Rodriguez
An impatient and destructively self-conscious collage of pointless episodes, Shorts is the kind of kids’ movie that overcompensates for its audience’s short attention span by mimicking it. Here, that means handing over narrator duties to main character Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), an eleven year-old too over-stimulated to tell a story coherently (hence the non-linear shorts of the title), with any emotional investment, or completely — which has him fast-forwarding through action, pausing to fill us in and rewinding to get his bearings. Whether meant to be funny, or a genre master’s (Rodriguez brought you both the Mariachi and Spy Kids trilogies) comment on the constricting conventions of today’s family blockbusters, the effect is annoying and alienating. And in a film whose characters are already annoying, and whose total surrender to mediocrity is quite alienating, this reliably ADD-afflicted narrator is especially grating.
To describe Shorts as a whole seems counter-intuitive, since the film wants so badly to be a series of jarring fragments. However, if it’s about only one thing that thing would have to be Apple (you know, the creators of your iLife), or the type of community and consumer that its products help to create. Toe is the geeky son of two team leaders (Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann) at Black Box Industries, the company that built the gated suburb of Black Falls (where the whole film is set) and produces the smartphone whatsit and iPhone stand-in The Black Box. The shape-shifting gizmo is a phone, baby monitor, clothes iron, portable fan, toaster and more, and Shorts could be seen as a showdown between this very slick, cold, corporate gadget and the decidedly low-tech, mystical, rainbow-patterned wishing rock that passes through the hands of almost every citizen in Black Falls and nearly destroys the place.
Toe, his family, one or two friends, various acquaintances and sworn enemies — including Carbon Black (James Spader), the evil, Steve Jobs-ian president of Black Box Industries and his hilariously named daughter Helvetica (Jolie Vanier) — all get their shot with the psychedelic stone. Per their wishes, by film’s end we’ve been treated to the laziest effects parade in recent multiplex memory. Walking crocodiles, a pterodactyl, miniature aliens, a booger monster, a giant wasp, robot and Oscar Mayer Wiener make brief appearances in Rodriguez’s creepy suburban black hole, a depthless amalgam of Buffy‘s Sunnydale and Edward Scissorhands‘s pastel subdivision. Here, though, the all-white middle-class standard of suburban luxury and heterosexual monogamy are never called into question or threatened in any real way.
In Shorts‘s few coherent moments — often involving adults, not surprisingly — Rodriguez tries to say a great deal about the ways in which constant digital communication and information are reducing our capacity for meaningful communication (The Black Box slogan: “Keeping us connected”). Toe has no friends, his parents speak more frequently via their Black Boxes than face-to-face, Helvetica is perpetually trying to reach her father, and the insane germaphobe neighbors the Noseworthys (William H. Macy and Jake Short) live happily isolated in their sealed and sanitized house. This point about the soaring quantity of our communication reducing its general quality — in addition to not being anything new — is so buried between bad action sequences (through many of which Toe fast-forwards) and unfunny comic interludes that Shorts winds up succumbing to the ailment it ostensibly means to treat. Like the shape-shifting super-gadget The Black Box, Rodriguez’s film tries to fit every function into a slick little product, but without an understandable user interface the result is more infuriating than enlightening.
Opens August 21