The Goo That Holds the Family Together
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Aug. 21, 2009
Connoisseurs of Robert Rodriguez's wonderful "Spy Kids" movies will recognize a few of the filmmaker's cardinal characters and themes throughout "Shorts." This family comedy, full of gadgets, gizmos and goo, features an alienated family, an evil corporate empire and a particularly noxious brother-sister team of pint-size villains. The hero, an awkward middle-schooler named Toby "Toe" Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), survives crocodile bile, pterodactyl poop and sundry other things that go splurt. After a series of hair-raising and quite possibly world-ending battles, order is restored in the form of a once-strained family coming back together in love and mutual respect.
Indeed, "Shorts" so faithfully adheres to Rodriguez's formula that at times it resembles a "Spy Kids" installment thrown into a chronological Cuisinart. The gimmick here is that, instead of telling the story in linear fashion, Rodriguez delivers it by way of a series of short films in mixed-up order. Cinema lovers will see clear connections to "Rashomon" or at least "Memento," but that's not the audience Rodriguez is interested in. A big, grown-up kid who happens to have major-cool special effects and a few million bucks at his disposal, Rodriguez remains in perfect synch with viewers who, when presented with a giant, goopy piece of nasal effluvia don't think, "Gross." They think, "Now that's entertainment!"
Well, yes and no. With its frantic, zip-zappy action, monsters, robots and look-at-this-shiny-object approach to narrative, "Shorts" seems ideally suited to young viewers with the collective attention span of a gnat. And, as technically proficient as Rodriguez is as a visual effects supervisor and editor (he also serves as writer, director, producer, cinematographer, composer and -- who knows? -- chief popcorn-popper at your concession stand), there's something reassuringly homemade-looking and low-tech about the staging and camera work in "Shorts." From the beige, washed-out palette of Toe's suburban pop-up neighborhood to the occasionally creaky physical stunts, "Shorts" resembles a big-budget home movie. Its almost awkward un-slickness offers welcome relief from CGI extravaganzas that, while visually seamless, seem to have been extruded rather than made.
As "Shorts" opens, Toe explains that he lives in the company town of Black Falls, where both his parents (Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer) work for Black Box Industries (Black Inc. for short), which makes a Rubik's Cube-like device that can do everything from placing a phone call to brushing your teeth. While Mom and Dad Thompson desperately try to find a way to improve the Black Box, lest they be fired, Toe finds a rainbow-colored "wishing rock" that will grant his every stated desire. The poor kid's first request is for friends: The rock provides him with a flotilla of little E.T.s that promptly whip up a gourmet meal while Toe's parents obliviously dine on ramen noodles and type away at their little PDA-slash-Transformers.
Even as Rodriguez taps into the restless media habits of the over-screened generation in "Shorts," he delivers a stern message against technological addiction, especially when it comes to plugged-in, tuned-out parents. In fact, there's nary a sympathetic grown-up to be found in "Shorts," in which Toe's parents are portrayed as distracted and competitive. A neighbor's father (played by William H. Macy bearing an unsettling resemblance to both John Bolton and Ned Flanders) is an obsessive-compulsive germaphobe. And Black Inc. CEO Mr. Black (James Spader) personifies capitalism at its most venal and megalomaniacal.
Come to think of it, the kids aren't much nicer. Poor Toe is routinely razzed by his sulky older sister (played by an underused Kat Dennings) and dumped into trash cans by the double-teaming siblings Cole and Helvetica Black (Devon Gearheart and Jolie Vanier, who looks like a pint-size Christina Ricci). Even when Toe finally gets a couple of pals on his side, the verbal aggression continues apace ("Dummy" is a favorite epithet). Perhaps appropriately for a filmmaker whose visual style often outruns his proficiency as a writer, a mind-reading baby provides the movie's most erudite dialogue.
If parents feel like they've seen much of "Shorts" before, its celebration of mayhem and restless, thrill-seeking vibe will absorb young viewers, especially as the boredom of late summer begins to set in.
Shorts (89 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild action and rude humor.