Shorts (review)

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Blurred Vision

I’ll give Robert Rodriguez this: He follows his own vision, and he can do so because he gladly spurns Hollywood to make movies, almost quite literally, out of his garage in Austin, Texas, with a couple computers and the neighborhood kids. And that’s a good thing: When filmmakers can get out from under the thumbs of the studios, we get movies that don’t look like all the other movies we get.
But Ed Wood followed his own vision, too, and while Rodriguez doesn’t here match the batshit-insanity of his Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over — which was so breathtakingly irrational that it’s surely one of the loopiest movies ever made by a filmmaker ostensibly sane — it’s close. Its flights of fancy both conceptually and narratively would be refreshing if they felt necessary, and if it limited its eccentricity to a refusal to abide by Hollywood conventions of storytelling, that’d be fine and good and welcome, even if the result is appealing only to gradeschoolers. (Kids should be exposed to nutty movies sometimes, too.) But when it abandons the kind of logic that satisfying storytelling demands, it founders into deep disappointment of the kind that makes you feel you’ve been cheated.

There’s something a tad annoying, if not actually worthy of being called “cheating,” in how Rodriguez (Planet Terror, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D), as writer and director, sets up his movie as a series of interconnected tales that link up to tell one big one. The story doesn’t appear to demand the jumping about, and the structure is not particularly ticklish or amusing. And maybe it does, in fact, constitute a kind of cheating, because Rodriguez gets to pretend that this is a series of short films — that’s where the title comes from — when it kinda isn’t. Oh, and the shorts are rearranged so that we get plot in mixed-up order, mimicking how a kid might tell a story. None of it feels genuinely rebellious, like a real smack at the straightforward structure of most studio films. It feels like the pointless defiance of a child who’s stamping his foot because he can.

The kid narrator is Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett, who’s been all over the multiplex this summer, in Star Trek, as the very young James Kirk, and Orphan as the sullen older brother), who relates the story of the magical, rainbow-striped “Wishing Rock” that falls from the sky and into the grubby hands of the kids of Black Falls. Mr. Black (James Spader: Secretary, Supernova) is the de facto ruler of Black Falls, a sort of company suburb — it doesn’t quite rise to the level of a company town — in which everyone works for Black making the mysterious and useful Black Box gadgets, which can do just about anything: now it’s a toaster, now it’s a cell phone.

There’s a smallish amount of corporate satire to be found in the Black Box stuff — Toe’s parents (Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann [Funny People, 17 Again]) work there, on competing teams, which is not a recipe for either workplace or domestic tranquility — but mostly Shorts lovingly details what happens when a bunch of eight-year-olds get their mitts on something that grants any wish at all (that would be the Wishing Rock, of course). If you guessed the wishes revolve around boogers, braces, bullies, you’d be right.

Here’s the real problem: None of this plays like it was conceived by an adult looking back with some perspective on kiddie concerns. Instead, it’s like Rodriguez let the kids loose in his garage studio, just clean up the mess when you’re done! Just like kids, they failed to realize that the Wishing Rock is far too powerful a narrative device: when you can undo any plot twist merely by saying, “I wish I could reverse this” — and the characters deploy this solution only at moments that cannot be magicked into something cool, gross, or both — you can’t help but wonder why the movie isn’t only ten minutes long.

And I suspect that even the eight-year-olds in the audience will figure that out.

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