Stars in Shorts (***)

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Stars in Shorts is a film/television special (courtesy of Shorts HD) featuring a collection of seven shorts that famous (or should be famous) stars…well, you know…star in. If I haven’t reiterated that four-letter word enough yet, I hope you’ll catch my drift by the end of the review. The good news about the inconsistent, if at times alarming wonderful, Stars in Shorts is that nearly every actor diverges from the roles one might normally see them play on the big or small screen, especially those of Hollywood British Royalty. I reckon that the people who are interested in watching this special will be more invested in the performances from big-name celebrities — who ironically are given the chance to show more range as an actor in a far shorter space of time — than the actual short stories they are meant to uphold. Film director/screenwriter/playwright Neil Labute pens three of the shorts, and proves that when he is not exclusively sitting in the director’s chair, he could be a major writing force in Hollywood. His writing style strikes a unique chord by never really defining its tone: there are elements of drama and black comedy in his works, and I find this purgatorial realm he’s living in utterly fascinating. Neil Labute is the true star in this slice of celebrity potpourri.

The Procession (***1/2)

Comedians Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson star in this hilarious short written and directed by Robert Festinger. The writing is so very much in line with Larry David’s “let’s find the funny in common situations” shtick that he’s made a trademark out of in both Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Considering Robert Festinger was an Academy Award™ nominee for the very un-funny In the Bedroom, I’m pleasantly surprised he’s able to deliver so many laughs in this short, which had me barking mad with laughter far more than I care to admit. Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson may seem typecast in their respective roles, but the more you watch them foolishly interact with one another, the more you appreciate their panache as off-the-cuff comedians. The short centers around a mother and son who are dragged to their daughter’s/sister’s friend’s sister’s funeral. Have I lost you yet? Neither really care to be there since they have no clue who this recently deceased person even is, but show up anyways for support. After the funeral service, Lily Tomlin’s character (simply referred to as “Mom”) begs and pleads with her son, Jason, to ditch the burial and go back to their daily lives. Although deep down Jason agrees with his mother about the burial being a complete waste of time, he feels morally obligated to go through with the entire service. Lily Tomlin persists, but is immediately shot down when a placard that’s designated “FUNERAL” is placed on their dashboard. If that’s not bad enough, something even crazier occurs which causes the lineup of cars behind them — who also have no idea where the cemetery for the burial is located at — to follow suit like one giant caravan. This unfortunate event results in even crazier roads traveled on their way to the burial. The character of the boy with the limp didn’t really work for me, and the ending was a little too neatly wrapped-up, but the chemistry between Ferguson and Tomlin, not to mention Festinger’s riotous script, makes this short film one of the best of the entire special. (Country: USA. Running Time: 12 min., 26 sec.)

Steve (**)

This short film focuses on one couple’s home under constant bombardment by their neighbor, Steve (Colin Firth). Keira Knightley and Tom Mison play the vexed duo, but neither really do much more than stand by in complete awe of Steve’s intrusive, insane, and — let’s face it — unacceptable antics. He constantly finds excuses to speak with them; clearly he’s a recluse who has recently suffered a hermit’s mid-life crises and wants to suddenly be surrounded by people, at any given time. The premise is unique, but compacted into such a small time, Steve lacks the impact it wishes to create by introducing a character so utterly unbelievable. In fact, it feels like the entire purpose of this persona Rupert Friend (writer and director) created was to show off Colin Firth’s dark, demonic and unstable side…as if we didn’t know he had it in him? Knightley is surprisingly bland in this role, and while some may love her restraint and subtlety, it’s almost a disservice to Knightley given how dynamic she can be when inhabiting the right character. Like he was in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Mison’s talents go to waste, and he’s pushed aside into the background while the two Academy Award nominees (in Firth’s case, Oscar winner) duke it out with words of rationality that soon turn into insulting barbs. Colin Firth, as much as I find him to be a brilliant actor, steps far over the line in this film, “over-acting” as a means of projecting a character whose insanity is more irksome than fascinating. (Country: UK. Running Time: 16 minutes)

Not Your Time (**)

This short should be retitled “Not Worth Your Time,” because it simply wastes its well-choreographed dance sequences (obviously inspired by Cabaret) and refreshing industry insight due to pacing issues and an overall lack of cohesion. I was singing Neil Labute’s praises earlier, but as a director he fumbles with this tale of a Hollywood bit-screenwriter who’s constantly given the run-around by several different studio heads (the cameos of several studio bigwigs is a small highlight). Sid Rosenthal, who once held big dreams of becoming a great Broadway star, now works a censor editor for films. Trying to find the unintentional expletives in movies (a spin on Disney’s accidental Easter eggs, perhaps?) is enough for anyone to go crazy, but when one of Sid’s scripts is loved by Disney but ultimately passed on due to unfounded reasons (something about interfering with a Toy Story sequel, yada yada), Sid Rosenthal considers suicide. How Rosenthal deals with his new path of direction, and how Hollywood reacts to this news, may seem funny to some but ultimately the jokes never yield anything more than mild discomfort. It’s one thing to poke fun at yourself as an industry, but if you go too far out into the bleak and self-damning realm of comedy, people might get the wrong idea. Jason Alexander is good enough in a role that already seemed written for him, but at least he gets to show off some chutzpah before his story arc descends into the dregs of banality. (Country: USA. Running Time: 25 minutes).

Sexting (***)

The vastly underrated Julia Stiles stars in another Neil Labute short, this time one that boldly takes cinematic risks that often pay