Blurred Vision: Rodriguez takes Shorts to the limit, with limited success.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
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 Austin, Texas garage, with a couple of computers and the neighborhood kids. That’s a good thing: When filmmakers get out from under the thumbs of the studios, we get movies that don’t look like all the other movies.
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, Shorts is close. Its flights of conceptual and narrative fancy would be refreshing if they felt necessary. If it limited its eccentricity to a refusal to abide by Hollywood storytelling conventions, that’d be fine, too, even if the result appealed only to grade-schoolers. But when it abandons the kind of logic that satisfying storytelling demands, it flounders.
There’s something annoying, if not actually worthy of being called “cheating,” in how Rodriguez 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. Maybe it does, in fact, constitute 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; it’s like the pointless defiance of a child stamping his foot.
The kid narrator is Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), 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) 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 makes mysterious and useful Black Box gadgets, which can do just about anything: now it’s a toaster, now a cell phone.
There’s a smallish amount of corporate satire in the Black Box stuff – that Joe’s parents (Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann) work there, on competing teams, is not a recipe for either workplace or domestic tranquility. But mostly Shorts lovingly details what happens when a bunch of 8-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 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.
I suspect even 8-year-olds will figure that out.
SHORTS (1½) • Directed by Robert Rodriguez • William H. Macy, Leslie Mann, Jimmy Bennett • Rated PG • 89 mins • At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.