By Drew Taylor | The Playlist December 12, 2011 at 5:56PM
While formulaic and lazy in its plotting, employing clichés upon clichés and opportune plot conveniences at every turn, David Gordon Green’s scrappy, loose and rough-around-the-edges mainstream comedy, “The Sitter,” is still by and large, an enjoyable little lark thanks to a strong dollop of WTF? absurdisms to round out its corners. And at a brisk 81 minutes, while largely forgettable, it’s still easy to stay engaged in a picture that appears to act as an homage to ‘80s perilous adventure films such as “Adventure’s In Babysitting” and “Risky Business” therefore using mechanical tropes by design.
Conversely, the more ludicrous humor of the film is almost a strange and jarring juxtaposition next to the pedestrian and uninspired narrative. It’s as if the film is at war with itself – on one hand actively trying to engage and please a mainstream audience with no apologies and – and on the other trying to sneak in as much left-of-center and outré moments to please the filmmaker. The third film in Green’s mainstream comedy trilogy (that includes, “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness”), 'Sitter' finds Jonah Hill playing a idle, twenty-something slacker named Noah coerced into taking care of a trio of disparate children for one very long evening. And that’s about as much depth, surprises or high-minded subtext the film can offer. Hill takes the three kids around and they get into zany, perilous adventures, the end. It also feels like it’s on the clock and the film races to launch its protagonist into the first act crisis that propels the story forward. But as hackneyed as the story is, “The Sitter” often, and surprisingly, gets by on its patchy charms and on the strength of Hill and supporting actor Sam Rockwell’s strong comedic performances.
However, those fumes can only last for so long. Characters ping-pong around an increasingly dangerous urban nighttime landscape, but it also feels somewhat directionless and by the end you're about ready for David Gordon Green, the nuanced filmmaker behind bittersweet romance "All the Real Girls," to give up the goofy comedy reins for a little while.
Opening with Noah and his cute but aloof sort-of girlfriend (Ari Graynor) engaging in a non-reciprocal form of fellatio, “The Sitter” announces its silly and raunchy intentions from minute one (she shrieks, "Wow, I guess it is true that nice guys eat the best pussy"). Afterwards Noah comes home and is prodded with guilt into babysitting by his now-divorced mom so she can have a night out for once. Character development is negligent as the movie's zippy pace won't allow for it, and Noah feels like any number of lazy man-children we've seen on screen in recent years.
Once he visits the household he’ll have to look after that evening, the core dynamic of the movie – that of foul-mouthed Jonah Hill versus precocious children – takes hold. Slater (Max Records from "Where the Wild Things Are") is fussy and neurotic, constantly seized by anxious fits and concerned because his best friend refuses to hang out with him; Blithe (Landry Bender) is a pop culture princess who wants to be a reality television star; and Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez) is an unpredictable adopted member of the family from Central America, mostly there in an effort to save the parents' rocky marriage.
The plot point that propels the dumb-guys-making-dumb decisions cliché is sex. Graynor wants cocaine and persuades Noah to bring her some and in exchange, Noah will finally get laid. Noah is reluctant but concedes after she coos, "I was thinking we could have sex." With that, we're off as Noah "borrows" the family minivan (already off-limits), shoves the kids in the car, and they head out for their wild night.
If this seems like a thin set up, that's because it is, but again, the picture somehow becomes far more entertaining than it deserves to be on paper. While many have been bemoaning Green's move from thoughtful indie darling to mainstream comedy player, he's never lost his wit or his playful style or his urgent sense of otherworldly strangeness, here pushed to the fringy edge instead of plopped front-and-center like in his oddball medieval romp "Your Highness" earlier this year. In "The Sitter" that strangeness is best exemplified by a sequence when Noah goes to score the coke from a drug dealer played by Sam Rockwell. Noah enters an underground lair, with musclemen lifting weights and fey roller skaters. Rockwell explains to Noah that he likes to hide his cocaine in baby dinosaur eggs and then starts ranking Noah on his list of "best friends." What all of this means is never really explained but it does a good job of giving the movie a wobbly, off-center edge that wouldn't have been there if the script by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka had been directed by anybody else.
It's just that, more often than not, in the struggle between idiosyncrasy and mainstream comedy, the mainstream often wins out. You can tell that David Gordon Green was emulating Martin Scorsese's "After Hours" more than "Adventures in Babysitting," as the movie gets wilder and darker, but often times opportunities for conflict are merely forgotten about or easily dismissed as the film races towards the finish line. You can feel the movie Green set out to make and it's constantly at odds with what wound up on screen.
And it isn't to say that "The Sitter" is some kind of slog, because it's not. It's got verve and pep, a kind of unstoppable propulsion, that few mainstream comedies show and a kind of throwaway charm that's hard to pinpoint but harder still to shake. There's also some genuinely interesting character stuff with the kids (particularly with Records, but as a dramatic actor this kid still has a long way to go), and throughout the movie we get nice revelations about them that are too good to give away here. Hill, who has really come into his own this year thanks largely to "Moneyball," shows unexpected range, particularly when he relates to the kids. It's the communion of a man who's never grown up with children who want to grow up too fast, and it's really wonderful stuff.
Additionally, the movie has a pronounced stylistic dimension missing from the glut of comedies these days thanks largely to Tim Orr's cinematography and the well-cultivated soundtrack featuring classic hip hop jams. While the script often falters, the craftsmanship is never in question. In fact, the movie is so spirited, so go-for-broke fun, that it's easy to overlook its numerous shortcomings. David Gordon Green has expressed interest in walking away from the comedy template for a while, to focus on things like his long gestating remake of "Suspiria," and after watching "The Sitter" you'll agree that he needs to give the genre a breather. As good a time as "The Sitter" is, Green needs a night off. [B-]