“What doesn’t it do!?” Ah, Mr. Black (James Spader) has good reason to feel proud. His best-selling gizmo extraordinaire, the Black Box, does do everything. Depending on the user’s unarticulated desire, it’s a cell phone, TV, computer, baby monitor, vacuum cleaner, paper shredder—essentially anything you want, whenever you want, the iPhone on CGIed steroids.
So begins Shorts, yet another romp through the gleefully childish imagination of Robert Rodriguez. Like Spy Kids, it offers up a family that needs to spend more time together—though the members doesn’t know it yet. Mr. Black is one such family member, a simultaneously absent and oppressive father of two (no mom in sight). Mr. Black is also the film’s most snidely villain (with reference to It’s a Wonderful Life‘s Mr. Potter), not to mention a wholly intimidating and prideful boss. And so he sets his minions—sometimes called employees—on the next incarnation of the Black Box, more fantastic and exponentially more profitable. These workers include the Thompsons (Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann), a mostly happily married couple he pits against one another—whoever loses the contest to find the best design will be fired, along with any relatives he or she may have working at Black. When Mrs. Thompson points out the illogic of this arrangement—whatever happens, they lose their jobs—well, Mr. Black can’t be bothered with anything so mundane as logic.
And so the Thompsons set to their tasks, bent over their Black Boxes at all hours, even when in the house with their children, Stacey (Kat Dennings) and Toby (Jimmy Bennett). She finds distraction with her on-again-off-again boyfriend (Alejandro Rose-Garcia) while he is mostly miserable, lonely and bullied at school and afraid to say anything about it—this especially because his chief tormenter is none other than Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier) and her brother Cole Black (Devon Gearhart)—spawn of Mr. Black and heirs to the Black fortune.
Though Toby—also called Toe—intuits that Helvetica has something of a crush on him—being as they are both feeling isolated at school and especially because they both wear braces—she resists his suggestion vehemently, ordering Cole to dump Toe headfirst in to the nearest garbage can. (This is apparently her favorite mode of torture, at once humiliating, silly, and predictable.)
As Toe recounts these events—he is, you learn early, the star and narrator of Shorts—he tends to lose track of what’s crucial and when it might become crucial, and so he constructs a series of chapters, cutting aback and forth in time and jumping from space to space. The movie keeps up with his rambunctious, disjunctive structure, using rewind and fast-forward icons to help the rest of us follow the disorder.
The chaos is amplified in part because Toe finds a magic rainbow-colored wishing rock, which lets whoever has it have whatever he wants. (As Toe and the rest of his community come to find out, the rock is pretty much the ultimate Black Box, shinier and prettier and with a mind of its own.) As the rock is passed around Black Falls, various users are more and less precise about what they want: Toe gets “friends,” a crew of tiny aliens who hover about him in teeny flying saucers; three brothers conjure a fortress, an army of crocodiles, a herd of snakes, and a swooping, child-grabbing pterodactyl; and Stacey accidentally directs her immature boyfriend to “grow up” (leaving him to turn taller and taller, until he looms over houses and trees like the 50-foot woman).
The problems that come with wishing and not thinking are only compounded when the adults get a hold of the rock. Toe’s mom wishes she and her husband might be “closer” and they’re suddenly conjoined at the hip (literally, though the crisis is more or less disguised by the fact that they’re attending a costume party at Mr. Black’s when they are so beset). And a coworker at Black’s, befuddled research scientist Dr. Noseworthy (William H. Macy) finds himself the victim of a series of bad wishes, one leading to the generation of a giant Booger Monster, courtesy of his son’s (Jake Short) nose-picking prowess.
The lesson everyone learns, of course, is the importance of families and friends coming together—without hi-tech gadgets, media distraction, or magic rocks. It’s a good all-purpose lesson.