It’s difficult to write a review for a film whose audience is 25 years my junior. But my reading audience consists of parents—not ten year-olds—many with whom I’ve reconnected through this wonderful whirling vortex of social networking. For millions, the internet is their primary means of staying connected with one another, and that technological dependence, at least according to Robert Rodriguez’ film, Shorts, is precisely at the heart of the problem.
The film follows the adventures of a few young classmates living in a suburban technology park named Black Falls after Mr. Black (James Spader), founder and CEO of Black Box, Inc. Everything about Black Box, Inc., is geometric. Its primary product, a ubiquitous Swiss army knife of electronic gadgets not unlike the iPhone, is comprised of boxes. The office building itself, located centrally in the community—children’s stories don’t need zoning ordinances—is like a Rubik’s cube. Why, then, is the neighborhood, from a bird’s-eye view, shaped like a lima bean? Nevermind.
The young Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett) perceives himself as odd, gets picked on, and begins to think he lacks friends. Imminently, he stumbles upon a rainbow-colored rock with the magical ability to grant his every wish. Any device with the mystical capacity to grant wishes only spells trouble. Thus, keeping the rock proves to be rather difficult. Oddly, not one kid in the entire neighborhood sports cargo shorts with button-down pocketflaps. I see kids wearing them all the time. But what do I know? Not that every child in the audience is going to care. That would effectively limit the mayhem, and mayhem there is.
His primary foils are Mr. Black’s children, Cole (Devon Gearhart) and Helvetica (Jolie Vanier)—laugh on cue when one boy calls her “typeface.” Toe is a clever kid, though. He embarrasses Helvetica by intuiting that her hatred is largely fueled by her secret admiration of him; they both wear braces, are outcasts, and seem to lack real friends—they don’t actually. As posited by miniscule alien companions wished into existence by Toe, he’s oblivious to the friends who surround him. This theme is only skimmed before the film trudges on with strange adventures that include a hypochondriac family, fathered by Mr. Noseworthy (a fastidious, paranoid William H. Macy), crocodiles that walk upright, a giant boyfriend and, of course, an anthropomorphized booger. Every kid’s movie boils down to snot and/or slime.
The narrative is chronologically fractured, intentionally, in a similar fashion to some of the other films by Rodriguez and sometimes collaborator Quentin Tarantino. Here the purpose is twofold: Rearrangement of scenes manufactures suspense, and children’s attention spans are terrible. But is that necessarily a good thing? Mr. Rodriguez is appealing to assiduously challenged children and parents. I was curious how they might react. Exiting the theater, I heard a young boy express confusion over the disjointed story. A series of unrelated shorts might function for the ADHD set, but Rodriguez tries to retain audience focus on a story that ultimately has a beginning, middle and end. The rearrangement isn’t any less gimmicky than in Pulp Fiction, Four Rooms or Memento. Here, the method potentially undermines the message.
Rodriguez’ children’s films hammer a refrain of parental neglect. I understand and respect his intention of commisserating with latchkey kids or dual-income families preoccupied with careers to the point of total disconnect with their children’s lives. In one scene, while mom and dad (Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer) are discussing work at the dinner table, Toe’s alien pals prepare turkey, cake, jello and so on. While the film later beats the drum louder, this finer touch quietly telegraphs that Toe needs complete meals—perhaps not jello and cake every evening, but at least more than noodles. However, what poignancy is served injecting heavy messages about parenting (e.g. texting each other from across the bathroom), friendship, nonviolence and even environmental consciousness into a movie which glorifies the suburban existence, makes light of bullying, and gratuitously employs property destruction for comic effect? I’m not saying I expect both serious drama and a surreal children’s adventure/comedy—quite the opposite. I’m saying by failing to choose one or the other Rodriguez risks a film that appeals to neither side.
Shorts • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Running Time: 89 Minutes • MPAA Rating: PG for mild action and some rude humor. • Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures