Directed by: David Gordon Green (Your Highness)
Starring: Jonah Hill, Max Records, Sam Rockwell, Ari Graynor, J.B. Smoove
Looking at director David Gordon Green’s post-naval-gazing indie output, The Sitter might be his best film yet. That’s a bit of a back-handed compliment, since our sample size consists of nothing more than the duo of weed-centric opuses Pineapple Express (2008) and the unrepentantly awful Your Highness (2011). What works best about The Sitter is that it’s the most straightforward of these films. Normally, I’d say that lack of ambition isn’t something to shoot for, but in Green’s case—whose idea of “high concept” seems to include a half-hour of jokes involving the well-endowed nether regions of a minotaur—it’s a blessing.
At its core, The Sitter is a succinct—if none too innovative—reworking of Chris Columbus’ Adventures in Babysitting (1987). It’s also a film that plays as a loving tribute to the ‘80s teen flicks of filmmakers like John Hughes. While decidedly more R-rated, The Sitter follows the same basic plot as Columbus’ film: A babysitter (in this case Jonah Hill instead of Elisabeth Shue) heads out into the big city with the kids he’s watching, struggling to maintain order while getting all of them into a variety of misadventures. That R-rating largely comes in the form of stronger language and a plot that revolves around our protagonists being hunted down by a crazed, eccentric coke dealer (Sam Rockwell). But even with a sense of humor that often wades into crudeness, somehow The Sitter comes across as the most mature of Green’s recent output. Sandwiched between the random bouts of vulgarity, there’s nary a weed joke to be found. (What does it say about a director’s filmography when they’re being praised for not being such a pothead?)
A lot of this newfound maturity has to do with the Hughes influence, most notably in how well-drawn the characters are. Hill’s Noah has daddy issues, for instance, but these aren’t just played for laughs. They’re realistic issues and never dwelled on. As we later discover—particularly in his relationship with his mother (Jessica Hecht, J. Edgar)—he also isn’t quite the selfish cad he’s painted as at the beginning of the film. Noah actually seems to grow and learn, eventually helping the kids he’s watching. Yes, the film is formulaic and overly sentimental on occasion, but it’s done with a fundamental respect for the characters. In watching how Noah handles the teenage Slater’s (Max Records, Where the Wild Things Are) confusion over his own sexual orientation, it’s clear that, for all the crassness, the movie does have its heart in the right place. This doesn’t make up for the film’s lack of outright funny moments, but it certainly helps.
Another thing that helps The Sitter is its strong cast. Hill finally gets a wholly likable character in a comedy, while Rockwell’s coked-up, emotionally needy antagonist—complete with a cadre of body-building henchmen—is one of the year’s better villainous creations. While the film is painless, however, it isn’t exactly fresh, which is what keeps it from being fully recommended. Rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material and some violence.