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Dustin Putman

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Shorts  (2009)
1 Stars
Directed by Robert Rodriguez.
Cast: Jimmy Bennett, Jolie Vanier, Kate Dennings, Jon Cryer, Leslie Mann, Jake Short, Trevor Gagnon, Devon Gearhart, William H. Macy, James Spader, Rebel Rodriguez, Leo Howard, Cambell Westmoreland, Zoe Webb, Angela Lanza.
2009 – 89 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for some rude humor).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 17, 2009.
From his "Spy Kids" trilogy—2001's "Spy Kids," 2002's "Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams," 2003's "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over"—to 2005's "The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl," multi-hyphenate filmmaker Robert Rodriguez has been known to waver between adult-oriented genre works and kid-friendly adventure films. It is admirable that Rodriguez can use his clout in Hollywood to make movies for his children, but in the future it might behoove him to spend a little more time on his scripts. His latest family endeavor, "Shorts," is an outright mess, replacing heart with hectic action and themes of moralistic value with empty visual effects spectacle. The characters and story feel so vacant and impersonal that all the viewer can do is grow increasingly weary. Making it all the way to the end is a tedious tall order.

In the Texas community of Black Falls, Mr. Carbon Black (James Spader) rules the roost as CEO of Black, Inc., a company specializing in a box-shaped, state-of-the-art, do-all gadget. His goal is to have the product in every home in the civilized world, and he has left it to married team leaders Mr. Thompson (Jon Cryer) and Mrs. Thompson (Leslie Mann) to get the word out. Meanwhile, their brace-faced preteen son Toe (Jimmy Bennett) struggles with school and bullies—namely, Black's offspring Helvetica (Jolie Vanier) and Cole (Devon Gearhart)—until he comes upon a rainbow-colored rock with the power to grant wishes. When the rock falls out of Toe's hands and word on its abilities spreads through Black Falls, it wreaks havoc on the lives of the surrounding neighbors, from gamer brothers Loogie (Trevor Gagnon), Lug (Rebel Rodriguez) and Laser (Leo Howard) to germaphobic father and son Dr. Noseworthy (William H. Macy) and Nose (Jake Short).

"Shorts" is separated into five chapters and a prologue (titled "Chapter Zero"). The opening is as good as it gets, with siblings (Cambell Westmoreland, Zoe Webb) in a cutthroat game to see who can keep their eyes open without blinking the longest. When the main thrusts of the story are revealed soon after, in a narrative that is told for no detectable reason out of chronological order, the film becomes so smug and self-satisfied that it drains from the proceedings whatever charm there might have been. The adult characters are all written as stereotypes—Mr. Black is a cold-hearted corporate bigwig; Ma and Pa Thompson are so obsessed with their communication gadgets they hardly have any time for son Toe and 19-year-old daughter Stacey (Kat Dennings); Dr. Noseworthy is a nutty scientist—whose turnabouts are so pat, predictable and rushed that there is nothing genuine about them. The kid characters would be virtually interchangeable if not for some falling the way of good guys and the rest playing tried-and-true bullies.

The plot more or less boils down to the owner of the magic rock making wishes that don't turn out quite as they expect. Mispronouncing the word "telekinesis," Loogie asks for "telephonesis" and ends up with a you-know-what attached to his head. Snakes and crocodiles run amok through the housing developing, the latter nearly swallowing a baby whole. Giant fortresses rise from the ground. The Thompson parents find themselves attached to each other like conjoined twins. It all becomes repetitive and boring, an excuse for Robert Rodriguez to show off his homegrown special effects ingenuity. Never does the story appear to be leading anywhere of note.

Jimmy Bennett (2009's "Orphan") is as close as the picture gets to a main character, and he is likable enough. All of the adult actors look harried without making an impression. Only Christina Ricci lookalike Jolie Vanier, in her acting debut, brings something special to the table; her Helvetica is the only character to endear the viewer, and she does that while playing an antagonist for most of the runtime. For anyone who has ever been ten knows, though, her terrorizing of Toe is but a flimsy shield to hide the fact that she actually has a crush on him. Vanier is somebody to watch for in the future.

"Shorts" is instantly forgettable; having seen the film two days ago, it's already just a scatter of spare fading memories. What does still stand out, however, are two questionable elements worth calling attention to. The first is Rodriguez's numerous mean-spirited references making fun of and belittling anyone who is over the age of eighteen and still living at home with their parents. It is one thing for Toe to heckle his out-of-school sis Stacey for having not moved since it can be chalked up to a case of sibling rivalry. However, when Stacey bashes her 23-year-old boyfriend for the same thing, and then repeats this several more times for no apparent reason—curious, that she never asks herself if he is a good boyfriend—it starts to almost feel like Rodriguez is holding some sort of grudge. In his world of wealth and privilege, he has lost sight of how difficult it sometimes is to make a living in the economically unstable real world, especially for post-graduates still looking for a job while dealing with student loans, car insurance, and such. Oftentimes it is necessary for over-18-year-olds to live with their parents for a while. What is wrong with that? In Rodriguez's elitist opinion, quite a lot. "Shorts" ends with the message that it is important to only wish for things worth wishing for, then turns around and snidely decides that the most important wish of all—the wish to end the whole movie on—is to be in a Hollywood movie. Literally. Hypocritical and materialistic in final summation, "Shorts" cannot even follow through with the flimsy lessons it presumes to make.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman