Robert Rodriguez totally gets pre-adolescent boys.
So does "Shorts," his daffy, witty and inventive new comedy crammed with booger monsters, belligerent bullies, magic stones, neglectful parents, evil bosses, insecure heroes and a girl appropriately named "Hel."
Don't let the Saturday morning cartoon subject matter fool you. This is one smart, subversive little comedy that has plenty to say about intrusive technology, basic family values and the dangers of ambiguous language.
"Shorts" celebrates Rodriguez's return to the juvenile fun and strong moral values he employed in his "Spy Kids" movies before he ran into a cinematic ditch with his bizarre "The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D," inspired by his 7-year-old son Racer Rodriguez.
"Shorts" is not about pants, as you might guess, but a compilation of five film shorts that tell a single narrative, albeit knocked out of chronological order.
Our narrator, Toe Thompson, constantly apologizes for confusing us, and uses the giant video playback controls at the bottom of the silver screen to zip back and forth between the segments to tell his tale of magic and triumph.
Think Quentin Tarantino meets Lemony Snicket.
Toe, played as an average Joe by Jimmy Bennett, lives in the fictional town of Black Falls where his workaholic parents (Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann) cow-tow to the slavish demands of their intimidating boss, Mr. Black (a bureaucratically creepy James Spader).
His company manufactures the Black Box, an all-in-one technological gizmo that makes marvelous fun of our obsession with multi-function gadgets. (The Black Box isn't just a TV and a telephone, it's also a pooper-scooper and a vacuum cleaner!)
Mr. Black's naughty son Cole (Devon Gearhart) leads the school bullies on their daily mission to stuff poor Toe into garbage cans. Cole's little sister Helvetica Black (newcomer Jolie Vanier, channeling Christina Ricci from her "Addams Family" days) delights in tormenting Toe, until he figures out why:
She likes him!
Everything changes for Toe the day he discovers a magic, multicolored stone that grants him every wish he makes. This is where Toe's inability to be specific gets him in trouble; the magical forces of the rock have a lot of latitude in fulfilling Toe's demands.
That explains how a character officially called The Baby (played by Bianca Rodriguez, the director's niece), winds up becoming the smartest person in the world.
"Shorts" never achieves the extreme levels of "The Monkey's Paw," but underscores the importance of exact, informed word choices in an age of computer communications.
Moreover, "Shorts" slams communication technology for lying to us, telling us that it will bring people together, when it actually keeps them apart and isolated. There's a comically terrifying moment when Mom and Dad are speaking to each other on their Black Boxes (in cell phone mode) and they're in the same room!
"Shorts" almost seems chaotic in its ADD-inspired construction, but that's window dressing on a clever, thoughtful story. (Rodriguez edited the film, along with writing, directing, producing, scoring, shooting, sound-mixing and supervising the special effects. This guy personifies the 1960s' "auteur" theory of film, just five decades late.)
"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" star Kat Dennings brings her disturbingly effective smoldering sexuality to Toe's permanently annoyed big sister Stacey. William H. Macy plays Dr. Noteworthy, Mr. Black's obsessive, workaholic scientist and dad to ignored science geek Nose Noseworthy (Jake Short).
When Toe's pal Loogie (Trevor Gagnon) tosses a booger into Dr. Noseworthy's new invention, causing it to grow into a menacing green entity, "Shorts" officially becomes the perfect comedy about pre-adolescent boys, starring pre-adolescent boys, made by pre-adolescent boys.
At least the ones residing inside Robert Rodriguez.
Starring: Jimmy Bennett, Kat Dennings, Lesley Mann, Jon Cryer, James Spader, William H. Macy
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Other: A Warner Bros. release. Rated PG. 89 minutes.