There was a moment when it looked like director David Gordon Green had found his niche making bawdy, hard-R comedies—a far cry from the touchy-feely arthouse dramas that had Roger Ebert gushing over him back in the early ’00s. Pineapple Express, the stoner shoot-‘em-up that marked Green’s mainstream studio debut, was really kind of brilliant, but then came Your Highness, which was really not. The Sitter is a bit harder to figure out. By no means is it a good movie, but, if you’re of a certain inclination, it’s entertaining enough to earn a cautious—and very specifically qualified—recommendation. More intriguingly, though, it’s a strangely circular entry in Green’s catalog; it’s still raunchy and crude, but it’s something of a return to the soft-heartedness that marked his early independent efforts.
The Sitter stars Jonah Hill as Noah, a twentysomething schlub who lives with his mother and only has one thing going for him: He finally has the sexy girlfriend he’s always dreamed of. The fact that Marisa is clearly hot for another dude doesn’t even register on Noah’s radar; all that matters to him is that she’s attractive and might, someday, have sex with him. Since their relationship doesn’t actually involve going out or being seen in public together, Noah doesn’t have much of an excuse to turn down a babysitting job so his lonely mom can go on a rare date. Before you can say “wacky hijinks,” Noah is placed in charge of Slater, a pill-popping 13-year-old with severe anxiety disorders; Blithe, an 8-year-old Paris Hilton wannabe; and Rodrigo, a pyromaniacal adoptee from El Salvador. When Marisa calls and asks Noah to bring her some cocaine, he loads the kids up and takes them into New York City for a night of explosions, car chases, fistfights, and life-changing lessons.
Hilarity rarely ensues, but mild amusement frequently does. If you’re even passingly familiar with ’80s comedies, you know exactly how all this is going to play out. First-time screenwriters Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka let other scribes do all the heavy lifting for them. If they were stealing car parts instead of plot elements, they’d be really good at it; there would be little left of Adventures in Babysitting but a chassis sitting on concrete blocks, and Uncle Buck would have given up its rims and stereo at the very least.
The problem is that the writers don’t know how to reassemble everything, and Green doesn’t seem to care. It feels like his job was mostly just getting everyone to show up and say their lines; there’s no energy or creativity in Green’s direction to make up for the lack of inspiration in the script. For all of its cinematic thievery, The Sitter feels more like a sitcom than a movie. The only time it really pops is when Sam Rockwell is onscreen as Karl, a violent and emotionally needy drug dealer who packages cocaine in dinosaur eggs and trolls for friends on social networking sites. The Sitter is almost worth seeing for Rockwell alone, who plays Karl as if Tony Montana had been dropped into the middle of Cruising.
The movie’s saving grace, though, might be the very thing that makes it such a tough sell. At its heart, The Sitter is a very sweet comedy about a really likeable, kind-hearted guy. It’s crude, and will likely offend many mainstream viewers, but it’s also weirdly charming, and even touching at times. Much has been made about the film’s supposed racism, but I’m not buying any of that. It’s a comedy constructed around stereotypes; though its jokes often fall flat, the entire film plays on how we view members of minorities other than our own, whether it’s blacks, immigrants, gays, or wealthy whites. Since everyone is fair game, and the only characters who aren’t ultimately redeemed by their own behavior are white, it’s a little hard to cry foul on this one, even for a left-winger like me. The Sitter might be tough to like at times, but in the end, its gentleness makes it impossible to hate.
And so it’s too treacly for the adolescent boys who would get the biggest laughs from its gutter humor (an 8-year-old girl yelling, “Double-punch to the nutsack!” and dropping f-bombs comes to mind), but it’s too raunchy for most of the people who would otherwise be charmed by it. With those caveats in mind, though, The Sitter is mildly entertaining and even, at times, actually pretty nice. If you find the idea of a hard-R, unofficial remake of Adventures in Babysitting appealing (and I kind of do), see it. Everyone else should probably stay away.