First of all: Toshi thought “Shorts” was the bomb.
He went with me one recent afternoon to the Warner Bros. lot where we found our way to one of the smallest screening rooms I’ve ever seen there. It was projected onto the back of a dude sitting at his desk, and we had to stand in his cubicle with him. Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite that small, but small.
Didn’t matter. For the film’s entire running time, Toshi was positively pinned to his chair, and afterwards, he ran around playing “Shorts” all afternoon with his profoundly confused baby brother.
And why wouldn’t he? He’s four years old, and “Shorts” offers up the potent and timeless fantasy of a magic wishing rock that can do anything at all. It also runs a “Monkey’s Paw” riff on the idea, illustrating clearly that most wishes can and will end up going terribly wrong, and that you’ll never really get what you want simply by wishing for it. I think this makes huge sense as a little kid movie.
For adults, “Shorts” is less painful than the “Spy Kids” sequels or “Shark Boy And Lava Girl” were. It’s generally amiable, the kids are talented enough, and the adult cast all strikes a very particular Robert Rodriguez tone. Considering how cool Robert is, and how some of his stuff has a genuinely dirty edge to it, he’s sort of a ham. He loves big and silly and colorful, and when he makes a film for kids, it never feels like an adult making a film that’s been market-tested and pre-approved and researched and focus-grouped. Instead, it sort of feels like another kid got hold of all the resources of a movie studio and made exactly the sort of film you would expect a kid to make. Messy, loose, with a story that doesn’t work in any sort of classic sense. And somehow, it works.
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Even in a film as silly as this, Robert finds ways to inject personal ideas or moments or jokes, like having three brothers named Laser, Lug, and Loogie. Since one of them is played by Rebel Rodriguez, whose brothers are Racer and Rocket, I’m going to guess that’s a pretty direct reference to the Rodriguez boys. And since the family lives in what pretty much looks like an authentic castle, I’m going to guess that the castle they wish for looks an awful lot like the house that Robert and his family share. Little things like that make the movie feel like a family affair, and I like that. It’s hard when someone has marital problems that are dragged into the press, because people start to sort through the work by that filmmaker, looking for hints or ideas about what went wrong. Here, Robert’s gone the other direction, making a film that seems to be optimistic about the possibilities of family, and that makes me think that he’s kept a more-positive-than-I’d-expect outlook through all of this.
Jimmy Bennett is the star of the film as Toe Thompson, a boy whose discovery of a magic wishing rock kicks off all the events of the film. His parents, played by Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann, both work for Carbon Black (James Spader), the owner of the company that pretty much employs everyone in town, all working to manufacture the ultimate all-in-one tech gadget. Toe has to deal with Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier), the daughter of Carbon Black, who bullies him daily. Throw in a disinterested big sister (Kat Dennings), a germphobic father-son team (William Macy and Jake Short), and you’ve got a recipe for a whole lot of frantic comedy about wishes gone wrong.
What works, works because of the cast. I was surprised that Toshi seemed to develop two crushes from one film. Jolie Vanier plays a great bully, and although she bears a strong physical resemblance to a young Christina Ricci circa “Addams Family,” Vanier plays it her own way, and she’s got genuine comic chops. Kat Dennings, ridiculously plush as always, plays Toe’s grumbling older sister, and although she doesn’t have a lot to do, she always seems mildly amused by the chaos around her. The fact that Toshi’s aiming both age-appropriate and not-a-chance with his affections bodes well for his eventual batting average. He is already 275% more pimp than I’ve ever been, even on my very best day. Oh, the pride.
It’s strange seeing Cryer and Spader together. It’s been a long, long, long goddamn time since “Pretty In Pink” evidently. Leslie Mann turns in another performance that proves she is one of the best comic lead actresses working right now, even with thin material. William Macy has so many tics in his performance that he should get checked for Lyme disease. He’s funny, but he’s one of those guys who grounds everything, even when he’s in a film as broad as this, and the result is a little on the creepy and sad side.
The two best kids are Bennett as the lead and Trevor Gagnon as Loogie. They actually seem like kids, not just little adults, and that’s charming. I’m always disturbed by kids who are too focused, too slick. Real little kids are just bizarre, wild, given to flights of random lunacy, and the best beats in “Shorts” have the same sort of energy. It’s not a great movie, by any means, but it’s more original than most family fare, and for younger viewers, it’s a pitch-perfect afternoon at the theater.
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