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Strictly for the Preteen Set

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

As a filmmaker, Robert Rodriguez has had two distinct careers. In one career, he writes, directs and produces independently financed and controlled, ultra-stylish, ultra-violent genre films (Grindhouse: Planet Horror, Sin City, Once Upon a Time in Mexico). In his other career, he writes, directs and produces family-oriented sci-fi or fantasy action comedies (e.g. the Spy Kids trilogy, Shark Boy & Lava Girl). His latest film, Shorts, fits unquestionably into the latter category. Briskly paced, crammed with sight gags, gross-out humor, blunt-edged satire, and visual effects, Shorts is the perfect film to keep preteens (and their parents) preoccupied for ninety minutes.

Rodriguez structured Shorts around a series of vignettes set in the fictional town of Black Hills (presumably located in Texas, if the local news on one character’s television set is any indication). Black Hills is an upscale, company town owned by Carbon Black (James Spader), the CEO of Black Box, a multinational corporation that manufactures an all-in-one communication and media device. Everyone who lives in Black Hills works for Black Box or is related to someone who works for Black Box. Rodriguez gives storytelling responsibilities to Toby “Toe” Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), a friendless misfit with indifferent parents, Bob (Jon Cryer) and Jane (Leslie Mann), and a semi-hostile older sister, Stacey (Kat Dennings). At school, Black’s children, Helvetica (Jolie Vanier), a mini-goth with attitude, and Cole (Devon Gearhart), a burgeoning jock, make Toe’s life miserable.

Toe, attempting to escape from Helvetica and Cole, finds a rainbow-colored rock at a construction site. When he innocently wishes he knew the nature of the rock, it tells him: it’s a wishing rock. Not surprisingly, Toe conjures up “friends", miniature, green-skinned aliens and their saucer-shaped spaceships, to help him fend off Helvetica and Cole. As Toe informs us, that’s not even the beginning of the story. Toe can’t keep the chronology straight, so he jumps around in time, first telling us part of his story before breaking off to include the magic rock’s discovery by one of Toe’s classmates, Loogie (Trevor Gagnon), and his two brothers, Lug (Rebel Rodriguez) and Laser (Leo Howard).

The magic rock has a way of trading owners, sometimes purposefully, sometimes inadvertently. Stacey briefly comes into possession of the rock, as do his parents on the eve of an important party held at Black’s mansion, and Dr. Noseworthy (William H. Macy), a germaphobe and Black Box employee, and his nose-picking son, Nose Noseworthy (Jake Short), and later on, other adults in Black Hills who can’t quite get the magic rock’s promises of wishes fulfilled. They get what they wished for, but as they quickly learn, getting everything they wish for tends to backfire (but never too seriously, since one wish can be quickly undone with another wish).

Given a young, inexperienced ensemble, it’s unsurprising that the performances range from the passable (e.g., Bennett) to the watchable (e.g., Jolie Vanier), with the usual mix of superfluous adult actors. Cryer and Mann have minimal screen time, but they share one of Shorts’ more inspired scenes as the Thompsons discover a new meaning for togetherness. As the semi-hissable villain, Spader surprisingly avoids the usual mugging and overbroad acting typical of villainous roles in family-oriented films.

Rodriguez’s thematic concerns go beyond, however, the simple message about the ill-considered consequences of having our wishes fulfilled. While Rodriguez satirizes all-consuming corporate culture, indifferent parenting takes a hit, as does the widespread disconnect that comes from always being connected via multi-media devices. Rodriguez extols uncontroversial family values (i.e., family first, careers second). Outside of a cataclysmic event (e.g. a worldwide electro-magnetic pulse that disable electronic appliances), our connected culture will remain always-on and the values Rodriguez hopes young audience and their parents take away from Shorts appear, at best, naďve, and at worst, outdated.

Rodriguez has been always more prolific than longtime friend and occasional collaborator Quentin Tarantino whose latest film, Inglourious Basterds, opens the same day as Shorts, but his scattershot work often betrays the modest budgets and rushed production schedules of a filmmaker more interested in creating commerce than creating in art. In addition to writing, directing, and producing Shorts, Rodriguez supervised the visual effects, and handled editing (with a co-editor), cinematography, and even co-wrote the musical score. He’s also keen on keeping his family and friends steadily employed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it often results in mediocre, uninspired work as Shorts turned out to be.