True to the title, there’s no unifying theme to the anthology Stars in Shorts—just a procession of familiar faces, belonging to actors of varying degrees of stardom, starring in varying degrees of mediocrity, each one at least thoughtfully brief. (Or in two cases, briefish.) The wattage of the star has no gauge on quality, otherwise Steve—a neighbor-from-hell comedy starring Colin Firth and Keira Knightley—wouldn’t be forced, shrill and, Firth’s innate Firthness aside, mostly charmless. Watching Firth play nuts is less dubious, though also less fun, than watching Judi Dench in Friend Request Pending, whose only joke is watching olds talk social media.
Single jokes are a hallmark of mainstream short cinema, and they define the two—two!—separate shorts written by Neil LaBute. After-School Special beholds as single dad Wes Bentley awkwardly hits on Sarah Paulson at a Chuck E. Cheese’s-type establishment, and the strangely touching nonseduction that follows is undercut by the kind of dumb twist ending that makes people hate LaBute. At least you won’t see it coming, whereas the one in the playwright/filmmaker’s Sexting—75 percent an unbroken medium shot of Julia Stiles ranting into the camera—is foreseeable even before its gets going.
Not Your Time is more meaty: Longtime editor Jay Kamen’s Hollywood satire details an aspriring filmmaker (Jason Alexander) who only gets offers once he announces he’s committing suicide, although one could rustle up more than a few for whom that plan didn’t work. The Procession, in which a mother and son (Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson) muck up the funeral of a woman they never knew, is the package’s lone almost-bright spot: a collection of decent gags that gets out before its welcome is overstayed.
Prodigal, the anthology’s lone serious entry is, alas, “serious,” with Kenneth Branagh reliably hammy as the baddie in what is a revival of the psychic kid thriller, like The Fury or Firestarter, only banged out in a clean 25 minutes. The conclusion is nakedly open for a sequel feature-length augmentation or TV show when not existing at all would have been preferable.