At The Picture Show
Rodriguez on auto-pilot
'Shorts' can't escape its own target audience
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Jimmy Bennett, Jolie Vanier, Kat Dennings, Trevor Gagnon, Jake Short,
Leslie Mann, Jon Cryer, William H. Macy and James Spader
Rated PG / 1 hour, 29 minutes
Opened August 21, 2009
(out of four)
I get it; I really do. Robert Rodriguez likes to make movies for kids. He doesn't
have to do it. He's not forced into it by the studios. He enjoys it. In fact, one of
his family films - 2005's The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl - was
reportedly based on his own son's original idea.
When you see a film like Shorts, you kinda just have to throw up your hands and
say, "Well, I'm just not the audience for this movie." The audience, of course, is
kids. Exclusively. And that's fine. In fact, by that standard, any star rating is
pretty much superfluous.
But it's not just that Rodriguez can do better movies
than this - it's that we know he can make better kids' movies than this. The
original Spy Kids was a terrific movie by any standard; the pure storytelling and
wit could be appreciated by all audiences. Since then, his kiddie fare has dissolved
to the point where it seems like he's casually playing down to the material - even
while his more adult-oriented filmmaking has improved exponentially. (I would
argue that Sin City and Planet Terror are the two best movies of his career.)
Shorts isn't without its charms. There are some great ideas and inventions here.
(No one will ever accuse Rodriguez of being unimaginative.) But they're
constantly derailed by the film's adolescent sensibility, which it insists on sticking
to. (Let me put it this way: There is a giant booger monster.)
I don't know why it traps itself in such a small audience - there are so many films
that cross over between young and old (Pixar, for example) that I can't think of a
single reason to see Shorts over any number of other family films. No matter what
demographic he's going for, Rodriguez is quite simply a more talented filmmaker
Shorts gets its title from its structure, as we get five
different episodes - a structural gesture that Rodriguez' friend Quentin Tarantino
might appreciate - all involving a magical wishing rock that seems to hop around
from place to place and person to person. Everyone wants to get their hands on it
(and with seemingly endless possibilities, can you blame them?), but no one can
hang on to it.
This is all well and good when it's the good-hearted, friendly children in the
neighborhood - namely Toby Thompson (Jimmy Bennett) and his new friend
Loogie (Trevoer Gagnon). But then there's Toby's nemeses, the brother-and-sister
class bully team of Cole (Devon Gearhart) and Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier).
They're the progeny of the neighborhood's resident tycoon (James Marsden), who
invented the "Black Box" - a multipurpose item that can transform into anything,
from a computer to a baby monitor to a can opener.
Toby's parents - played by Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer - are heading up Mr.
Black's creative team as he looks to move the Black Box above and beyond its
current capabilities. Just about everyone else in this little suburbia - which seems
to exist outside any other area of civilization - works for Mr. Black. After all, his
corporate headquarters is right on Toby's block - nestled right in between, I'd say,
a two-bedroom starter home and a cozy duplex. But I digress.
When Shorts is enjoyable - which is only in fits and
starts - it's due to Rodriguez' creativity. He's always had a boundless energy for
wonderfully strange ideas and sight gags, and there are a few on display here that I
But so often, the ideas he generates to set up his set-pieces simply don't measure
up - they peter out before they can really turn into anything worthwhile.
I'm not against a filmmaker like Rodriguez spending his time on movies like this -
in fact, I'm all for it. I only hope that next time, he gives us a Spy Kids-like effort
instead of another dud that might feel more at home in the middle of a Saturday
morning TV schedule.
Read more by Chris Bellamy