The short film is something of a neglected art form. There was a time when the shorts shared equal space with feature-length films, back in the days when going to the movie theater was a full-blown experience (one that modern theaters are struggling, mostly unsuccessfully, to recapture). Now though, shorts are mostly curiosities, the province of film students and those who have yet to “make it big” in the industry. Which is a shame, since there’s a value to be found in working with an abridged running time. There was one rather respected writer who said something about brevity and wit, I believe.

Stars in Shorts is a collection of seven short films, all of which, as you might guess from the title, feature big-name actors in the lead roles. While it isn’t unheard of for A-listers to involve themselves in shorts despite the lack of prestige and money associated with them, star strength is still unlikely to raise the profile of any given film. The people at Shorts International have curated this selection as a way of showcasing what the form has to offer. The choices of films run the gamut, which comes with the territory in pretty much any anthology. There will be some good highs, and some pitiful lows. I’ll review each film separately.

The Procession

Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Lily Tomlin play a son and mother who get mixed up when attending the funeral of a friend of a friend. A very funny piece, one that is essentially built around one joke, but it’s a joke that compounds on itself nicely as it goes on. Ferguson and Tomlin have terrific chemistry together. Many details about the social rituals of burial, as well as normal family interaction, strike quite true, and are all the funnier for it. Probably my favorite of the bunch.

Steve

Colin Firth is Steve, an odd man next door who keeps finding excuses to visit the girl who lives in the apartment upstairs, played by Keira Knightley. A riff on the modern coldness of relationships between neighbors. Firth is funny, sad, endearing, and a bit creepy all at once, and Knightley is good too, even with a distracting Irish accent. It’s a cute little bit of absurdism.

Not Your Time

Jason Alexander is a movie editor/writer who falls into despair over his inability to sell his dream project to Hollywood. It’s the longest of the films, and much of the run time is taken up by stuff that doesn’t feel very necessary to the story, such as an extended flashback sequence. The film can’t decide what it wants to do, abruptly changing its plot track more than halfway through. There’s some showbiz satire that’s more shrug-worthy than cutting.

Sexting

Basically an extended monologue, in which Julia Stiles plays a woman meeting her boyfriend’s wife for the first time, and makes a stumbling attempt to explain herself. Stiles pulls off a great performance here, doing the best acting out of anyone in the anthology. The dialogue she’s saying often feels quite fake and film schooly though (and the seemingly random choice to make the film black and white doesn’t help its case in that aspect).

Prodigal

Probably the worst of the bunch. A man tries to shelter his supernaturally-powered daughter from a shadowy organization, represented by a villainous Kenneth Branaugh. Absolutely opaque in its plot details, to the point where its impossible to care about any of the characters. Chock-full of silly melodrama and overdone emotional beats. Quite predictable as well.

After School Special

Unquestionably the strangest film in the program, and the one most likely to offend people. A woman (Sarah Paulson) and a man (Wes Bentley) have an awkward conversation at an indoor playground. The whole short is a setup for one punchline, and it’s a piece of extremely dark comedy that some might find distasteful. Personally, I didn’t laugh, but I wasn’t outraged, either. The film itself is so muted that it made it difficult to care one way or the other.

Friend Request Pending

Judi Dench plays a woman trying to use Facebook to finagle a date with a man she’s recently met. A sweet little film, although the genuine comedy is tangled up with cheap laughs that come from old ladies pronouncing “LOL” as “lol.”

Overall, what strikes me most about this collection is that there isn’t much of a through-line to the choices of films. They don’t share any common themes or styles. The only connective thread is that they feature “stars,” and in some cases that’s debatable. If Stars in Shorts is showing near you, then the good bits of it will probably make up for the worse parts. And it’s worth supporting all efforts to enrich the short film as an art.