As anybody who’s made one or sat through several in a row can tell you, the short film is a tricky animal. Even in an era of webisodes and pithy viral sensations, so many shorts still look too hollow or lumpily abbreviated, and the great ones — those marvels of narrative economy and pound-for-pound entertainment value — seem even harder to find.
But that’s reason enough to keep looking, usually by rounding these tricky animals up into loosely unified herds. Seven little movies make up the Stars in Shorts anthology, which obeys that prudent film-biz mandate to stock one’s cast with well-known quantities. It’s uneven, as these things always are, but at least it’s commercial.
The Procession, a 12-minute comedy, opens with a pile of cheeky pregnant pauses. And even one minute in, it feels too long. But that’s partly on purpose and plot-appropriate: A woman (Lucy Punch) enlists her brother (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and mother (Lily Tomlin) to attend the funeral for her friend, whom they never knew. Confined to their car and stuck in the procession, the reluctant mourners indulge themselves with a riffing dialogue duet, playing Tomlin’s complacent genius against Ferguson’s grating TVishness. Appropriately enough, the humor seems stop-and-go, but it gets close enough to closure, eventually.
The actor Rupert Friend’s directorial debut Steve posits Colin Firth and Keira Knightley as apartment dwellers with peculiar circumstances, straining to be neighborly. It may inspire viewers of a certain disposition to pine nostalgically for their rangy student years of living too frugally, mounting occasional ever-so-clever one-act plays, and trying Irish accents for no good reason. It is schematic and writerish, and inevitably actorish, but narratively shapely, too, and having those fancy actors involved really does help.
Like some X-Men origin story wedged into 25 oddly lollygagging minutes, the ostensible sci-fi thriller Prodigal just isn’t very thrilling. Here, a man tries to protect his supernaturally gifted young daughter, deemed “a Darwinian quantum leap,” from nefarious special interests. And although judicious with its use of special effects, the movie wants to dwell in an ominous mood it hasn’t convincingly established. Along with Jennifer Morrison from House M.D., it also makes use of Kenneth Branagh. Sometimes these things give off the deadening air of a famous person doing some family friend a favor. But sometimes their atmosphere is more enlivening, with the famous person seeming refreshed by a brief diversion. It is to Branagh’s credit that Prodigal suggests the former but becomes the latter. He’s definitely doing a favor to this mediocre material.
Delicacy doesn’t come easily to the short-movie form, especially in the area of the soundtrack. Several of the works in this anthology have been coarsened by brash, hokey music — be it the obnoxious laugh cues of Steve and The Procession or Prodigal’s strenuously dramatic strains of Zimmer lite. Not Your Time, a musical satire of the entertainment industry starring Jason Alexander, does have a greater symphonic command, but not exactly a gentle touch. For all its cute bits and peppy production numbers, it still feels like a slog.
Friend Request Pending, a sweet-natured glimpse of geriatric online dating, feels like an extracted sequence from some other full-length movie. This may be because it has Judi Dench doing a variation on the shtick she played in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Also with a Tom Hiddleston cameo, it is at least shrewdly English: “His tweets are very good,” Dench observes of her cybersuitor. “They’re very witty. Better than Stephen Fry.”
In After-School Special, written by Neil LaBute and directed by Jacob Chase, Sarah Paulson and Wes Bentley make purposely tentative small talk at an indoor playground. Being Neil LaBute, this plays out as an awkward encounter — but differently awkward than you might expect.
There is only one LaBute, possibly because one is enough, but Stars in Shorts represents him twice. Sexting, which the man himself directs, supplies another example of the common setup-punchline structure, also with his keen playwright’s intuition about how to keep an audience compelled. Its theme is adultery, and its substance is Julia Stiles in an extended camera-facing monologue. This is a well-played piece, although here and there she seems to rush it. Or maybe that’s just the sense that movies often run long, but life is always short.