I'm spoiled. As a kid, I woke up with Beanie and Cecil and Rocky and Bullwinkle, gobbled down Looney Tunes, Merry Melodies, Speed Racer and Gigantor after school, and passed the early evening hours with The Flintstones and The Jetsons. Even as an uneducated child, I knew the ones with replay value and the ones that quickly grew tiresome. As an adult, I know the ones that still hold up and the ones that make me embarrassed to admit I ever watched them.
That brings me in a roundabout way to Robert Rodriguez' new, live-action film Shorts. Funny, inventive, and very, very clever in micro-bursts of six to eight seconds, Shorts becomes tiresome over the length of its 89-minute running time. I couldn't shake the feeling that it would have been better-suited as a weekly television show, chopped up into brief segments with plenty of commercial breaks in between. Shorts could just as easily have been called "Six Short Sketches in Search of a Synopsis," but then the title would be longer than its attention span.
Aimed squarely at kids, Shorts may, perhaps, please the modern sensibility of today's sub-teens, but I suspect the well has run dry for Rodriguez and family films. The Spy Kids franchise devolved in entertainment value from the first installment to the third, and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl was an unfortunate mess. Rodriguez has built a cottage industry based on a scattershot approach to filmmaking. He's always been a "shoot [film] first, ask [narrative] questions later" kind of director / writer / photographer / editor / composer / visual effects artist. That doesn't serve him well with Shorts.
Rodriguez' films have always displayed an admirable, ferocious energy. Rodriguez himself makes for a great, inspirational story. Rather than give in to all the temptations offered by the big Hollywood studio system, he's worked hard to create an environment in which he can pursue his own passions. He's the Stevie Wonder of film, ignoring the distractions of the outside world as he plays all the instruments, not only writing, directing, producing, photographing, and editing his own work, but often composing the music, supervising the visual effects, cooking the meals, and, for all I know, tucking everyone into bed at night.
It's hard to resist his fiercely independent spirit. Looking back over 17 years of his career, though, it's difficult to pick out any unalloyed triumphs. The premise often sounds great: criminals stumble into a nightclub filled with vampires (From Dusk Till Dawn), alien creatures invade a high school (The Faculty), a groundbreaking graphic novel comes to life (Sin City), zombies attack and only a woman with a machine-gun leg can stop them (Planet Terror). Those are all movies I want to see!
Indeed, I've seen just about everything he's made, but I can't deny the nagging feelings of dissatisfaction that linger, and are evident again in Shorts, flaring up to an alarming degree. Sure, we get to see an army of crocodiles storming a fortress by primly walking -- on their hind legs -- up the walls. Sure, we get to witness a dizzying race to reclaim a wishing rock, featuring a giant crocodile, a giant booger, a giant boyfriend, James Spader as a giant robot, and William H. Macy. Sure, we get to see Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann fused into one body.
Let me spell that out for you: If only it weren't all smashed into one scene after another with no rhyme nor reason. Then maybe some of those crazy ideas could be explored, just a little, instead of being hurled against the wall, helter skelter, waiting to see which, if any, stick. And then not waiting to see the results before cutting another rock from the quarry. I know I'm mixing metaphors like crazy, but that's the effect of watching the movie.
The pity of it is that I like the crazy ideas. I just have this silly wish that the movie would relish the idea of Spader as an evil corporate bad guy who is also the kind of parent that insists his children be polite, or allow us time to distinguish young male characters named Loogie, Lug, and Laser from one another. Or to fully exploit the premise of the movie itself, which surmises that the gadget to end all gadgets, a handheld device that can be programmed to do everything from answering the phone to toasting bread to, well, whatever you can imagine, might not actually be a good thing.
Instead, the focus is on delivering the simplistic message "be careful what you wish for" over and over again, ad nauseum, and I think even the youngest audience members will wander out of the theater and be tempted to check out what Rodriguez' pal Quentin Tarantino is doing with Inglourious Basterds next door in the multiplex.
Which may have been the intention all along. Kids deserve better.
For the record, the film is intentionally broken up into segments which play out of order, tied together through the narration of Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett). His parents (Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer) work for the company that produces the Black Box, the aforementioned magical device that transforms into almost anything the user desires.
In old-fashioned 'company town' spirit, the entire neighborhood surrounding corporate headquarters is inhabited by company workers. Head honcho Mr. Black (James Spader) lays down an edict that competitors to the Black Box must be eliminated, and he sets his two top team leaders against one another to get the job done. The two team leaders are husband (Jon Cryer) and wife (Leslie Mann).
Meanwhile, Toe is tormented by bullies at school, led by Mr. Black's daughter Helvetica (Jolie Vanier) and son Cole (Devon Gearhart). Toe seems like a good kid and tries to maintain a positive spirit, but he feels friendless and alone, ignored by his constantly-working parents. His big sister Stacey (Kat Dennings, whose uncanny ability to morph seamlessly from moody blue to sunshine yellow is the best thing about the movie) isn't any help. Then a magical rock enters his life, and things will never be the same.
The time-shifting doesn't work too well, so, in that sense, it's entirely appropriate for a movie that almost made me wish I could go back in time and see something else. Almost, but not quite: against all the reasons I've discussed, I'm still holding out hope that Rodriguez will deliver a fully-realized film that tells a great, cohesive story.
If only I had a wishing rock that could make it so.