Starting with Spy Kids in 2001, writer-director (and editor, cinematographer, composer, etc.) Robert Rodriguez has carved out a healthy second career making kid movies to complement the adult genre movies that made him famous, starting with his low-budget breakthrough El Mariachi. But the same hand clearly guides all Rodriguez’s movies, and it delights in over-the-top moments—whether it’s the ultra-violence of Sin City or a super-intelligent baby battling a crocodile in his new film, Shorts. That reigning sensibility doesn’t always care whether the seams show. At their best, Rodriguez’s movies feel handcrafted. At their worst, they feel half-assed. And sometimes they range from inspired to lazy so wildly, it becomes hard to tell the difference.
Shorts has a clever idea at its core, and several more hovering around it. It also has several films’ worth of kid-pandering gags involving pterodactyl poop, plus a monster made from a giant booger and a frantic tone sure to disorient anyone over the age of 12. That’s fine for the target audience, but a few scenes suggest that Rodriguez could have made a film grown-ups might want to watch too—like the first two Spy Kids movies, for example—and they make all the frenetic business around them that much tougher to take.
Rather than unfolding as a straightforward narrative, Shorts takes the form of several interlocked short films. That’s the clever idea, but apart from a recurring gag involving siblings locked in an epic staring contest, nothing comes of it. Remove the unusual structure, and the film remains much the same. The story involves a stone that makes wishes come true—at least those allowed by a modest CGI budget—and a soulless, James Spader-run corporation that manufactures gadgets whose many uses make iPhones look like abacuses. Once the wishing stone falls into children’s hands, the company town surrounding Spader’s headquarters becomes overrun with castles, aliens, and other kid-friendly dreams-come-true.
Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann have a couple of sly moments as overworked career people, and Spader again proves he learned a lot by working with William Shatner for so long. But the bottomless slapstick and silly effects quickly grow wearying, as does a cast of young actors whose work can politely be called energetic. A little enthusiasm goes a long way, but Rodriguez’s films too often demonstrate that it doesn’t go far enough.