Film Review: Stars in Shorts

A very mixed bag of short films, but Lily Tomlin, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Judi Dench and Penny Ryder make it worth catching.

An omnibus collection of short films boasting some big names, Stars in Shorts is a decidedly mixed bag. Let’s start with the strongest entry, Chris Foggin’s Friend Request Pending, an endearingly droll divertissement which posits Judi Dench and Penny Ryder as two old biddies trolling the Net in search of suitable male companionship. It’s nothing terribly new, but to hear observations about the dubious use of LOL and the like, issued in Dench’s beloved, huskily precise tones, lends them a delightful piquancy. Ryder gives lovely support as her roommate, who herself harbors certain beyond-cougar-ish designs upon Dench’s son, whom she would dearly love to “poke.”

Robert Festinger’s The Procession has Jesse Tyler Ferguson (“Modern Family”) paired with Lily Tomlin as a son and mother who find themselves stuck in an auto procession to the funeral of a woman neither of them knew. It’s extremely slight, but both performers are at the top of their respective games, with Ferguson plying his addled, neurotic gay guy shtick, while Tomlin expertly does the magisterial kind of matron which first brought her fame with her “tasteful lady” on TV’s “Laugh-In,” who here is not above wondering if there’ll be prosciutto at the reception. The short recalls in its tiny way Sidney Lumet’s wonderful, little-seen Bye Bye Braverman, which also focused on verbosely intense characters haplessly trying to get to a burial.

Less successfully, Benjamin Grayson’s determinedly creepy Prodigal ambitiously tries to conjure up an entire weird sci-fi world, with Kenneth Branagh at his most inscrutably malevolent as a kind of creepy, big-league child-catcher. The little girl in question here possesses supernatural powers and the best thing to be said for this mystifyingly murky, unpleasant affair is that, at 25 minutes, it’s at least shorter than some heavy-handed feature which would have spun out this thin conceit for another hour or so.

The other Brit entry, Rupert Friend’s Steve, has a likewise dark edge to it, featuring Keira Knightley and Tom Mison as a relentlessly bickering couple who are further saddled with an irate, off-the-wall neighbor, played by Colin Firth. It’s the kind of thing that was probably more fun to write and play than it is to watch, and Firth, although competent as always, never really convinces you of his character’s volatile, unhinged state. He often reminds me of Ronald Colman, undeniably charming and adept, but far from electrifying when that is truly called for.

Jay Kamen’s Not Your Time is the most elaborately staged entry, starring Jason Alexander as a wannabe Hollywood player, whose creative dreams are perpetually dashed. Encompassing a full-scale Bob Fosse number set to a song about the necessity of always cracking a smile, it’s a full-on farce of desperation, with Alexander’s suicidal intentions suddenly making him bankable. This short is predictable, sub-Neil Simon stuff, but it’s sparked by some lively cameos by real-life industry big-shots like Laurence Mark, Joe Roth, Amy Heckerling and especially a diamond-hard Amy Pascal.

The collection hits rock bottom, though, with two segments written by the increasingly abrasive Neil LaBute. Sexting, which he also directed, has would-be home-wrecker Julia Stiles ranting about her lover performing cunnilingus on her and a beyond-tired denouement which screams of total creative dehydration. After School Special, directed by Jacob Chase, which involves a schoolteacher (Sarah Paulson), one of her student’s fathers who tries to hit on her (Wes Bentley), and the kid she’s watching, also ends with one of those now-rote LaBute final fillips which simply evokes groans rather than devastation. Actors involved in this kind of drek need to know that they can always just say no.