I don’t want to make a habit out of this in my reviews, but I feel like I would be truly remiss if I failed to acknowledge, in light of my marginally positive thoughts on The Sitter, just how utterly abysmal the reviews have been for David Gordon Green’s latest movie. As hard as it is for me to disagree with critics’ chief complaints about the movie – its regurgitation of the plot to Adventures in Babysitting, the lazily-drawn characters, the predication of its jokes on the most hackneyed of ethnic and homophobic stereotypes – I am admittedly flummoxed by how often I chuckled at a movie so despised by many others, and how much of the movie actually works just enough to have kept me entertained throughout.
Noah (Jonah Hill), a student on suspension from college after, among other things, getting a DWI, gets guilt-tripped by his mother (Jessica Hecht) to babysit for her friends’ three children so she can go out on a double-date. Each child comes with their own collection of foibles off-kilter enough to elicit maximum comic potential, but broad enough in their conception to be resolved well within the movie’s 80-minute running time: Slater (Max Records), the elder son, is an anxiety-prone hypochondriac/closet-case. The daughter, Blithe (Landry Bender), sports an unhealthy obsession with makeup and age-inappropriate music. Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), recently adopted from Latin America, has a penchant for running away and blowing stuff up (those crazy foreigners…always trying to blow stuff up in America).
Noah’s task is simple: to babysit these three urchins throughout the night. But when his pseudo-girlfriend Marisa (Ari Graynor) presses him to buy her some cocaine and to join her at a party that same evening, he decides to oblige her, dragging the kids along to run his errands. This may seem unreasonable and contrived, but did I mention that Marisa sweetens the deal with the promise of sex? Of course, his libido bites off more than it can chew, and Noah inevitably finds himself and his three underage compatriots in serious trouble with gangs, police officers, bat mitzvah party attendees, and a homosexual drug lord (Sam Rockwell).
If my tone against The Sitter seems glib and dismissive so far, It’s less out of general distaste than it is an acknowledgement of how numbingly formulaic so much of Green’s movie really is. Its plot barely survives post-viewing scrutiny, and those who bemoan the film for exploiting facile stereotypes of black people, gay men, and beautiful yet deeply inconsiderate blonde women for quick, cheap jokes aren’t exactly off-base (in the movie’s very first scene, Marisa declines to reciprocate the oral sex Noah performed on her, so you KNOW she’s bad news). What’s more, Jonah Hill is a core weakness here; playing both the protagonist and the comedic straight man, not enough about his character is established to keep him from slinking to the background. It’s an odd failure for the movie, considering Hill’s presence in nearly every scene.
So what is it about The Sitter that actually works for me? I think the best reasoning I can muster is by comparing Green’s film to my admiration for the stand-up comedian Kathy Griffin (I know…I’ve already lost some of you). Known more for her ability to tell anecdotes than for her innate ability to set up a joke and a punch-line, Griffin’s comedy typically lands not because the celebrity stories she recounts are innately amusing, but because the energetic cadence she brings to them is infectious. The cadence to The Sitter’s storytelling is similarly infectious; it commits to its unapologetically brisk pace, allowing its jokes to land or flop with a come-what-may confidence, despite the innate repugnance of its stereotyping and the blandness of the character leading us through it all.
Green, whose “highbrow” work (George Washington and Undertow) is still a major blind spot of mine, is the principle force behind this energy. His comedic sensibilities are well-suited to the comedic material he is usually given, both the good stuff (Pineapple Express) and the bad stuff (the truly awful Your Highness). I additionally have to commend the film’s casting of its three children, each of whom accomplish a great deal with what the script gives them. Records, whom I last saw in Where the Wild Things Are, particularly strikes me as a young actor capable of finding nuances in even the thinnest of roles (his “coming-out” moment here is cringe-inducing for reasons by no means his fault, but he makes the scene almost work). Even if the comedic energy alone doesn’t sell you on The Sitter and its problematic content – you would hardly be alone – hopefully you will still catch glimpses of talent that might deserve a somewhat better movie.
Bottom Line: There are plenty of reasons to avoid The Sitter like the plague, but a select few may nonetheless find something to enjoy in David Gordon Green’s dumb and formulaic comedy.