By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
This weekend, bosom buddies Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino can clink bottles of cerveza, toasting another double-team assault on moviegoers — but not like 2008's Grindhouse, the bad boys' double feature of exploitation tricks. Their new films are curiously compatible nonetheless.
While Tarantino unleashes the bloody, profane Inglourious Basterds, Rodriguez takes it in the other direction with Shorts, the kind of movie I'd like to see if I were 10 years old. Shorts is goofy juvenile fun, made on the cheap and unashamed of it, with a twisted sense of humor prepping children for Rodriguez and Tarantino's adult movies someday. Anything can happen and does, maybe too much, but that's imagination for you.
Set in an Austin, Texas, subdivision, Shorts is divided into five episodes (like Inglourious Basterds) and chronologically jumbled so puzzling answers come before questions are asked, clearing up confusion. Rather than a boogeyman like Adolf Hitler, Shorts features a villain that's literally a giant booger. Nobody suffers anything worse than being coated with crocodile vomit.
At the center of Shorts is a rainbow-colored wishing rock that dropped from outer space into the neighborhood. Possession shifts from one household to another, with strange results after anyone makes a wish. Rodriguez takes each desire to silly limits; parents hoping to grow closer wind up conjoined, a boyfriend told to "grow up" becomes a giant, and a kid wanting unique friends ends up with mini UFOs in his backpack.
Shorts is immediately disposable fun for children, and there's nothing wrong with that if presented so straightforwardly. Rodriguez dumps the 3-D effects that made his third Spy Kids flick and that Sharkboy/Lavagirl misfire such disasters, focusing on a ginormously tall tale and rambunctious actors making it seem real.
In the middle of everything is Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), a bullied kid whose parents (Jon Cryer, Leslie Mann) are too busy to understand. They work for Carbon Black (James Spader), an industrialist whose Black Box product is like an iPhone on steroids. Black's daughter Helvetica (Jolie Vanier, a dead ringer for Christina Ricci, the Addams Family version) is Toe's chief tormentor.
Everyone gets a turn with the wishing rock, with predictably odd results. Shorts is definitely a movie for short attention spans since so little of the action actually means anything later. Rodriguez knows his audience and the Nickelodeon they watch religiously. Throwing one of those types of shows on the big screen isn't an ambitious move, but it's something fun to do before elementary school bells ring again.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.