Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On DVD: "The Sitter"

Let's get all of the givens out the way: Yes, The Sitter should be funnier than it is. Yes, it's sloppy and tossed-off and kind of lazy. And yes, director David Gordon Green's move from art-house darling to stoner comedy auteur is just plain weird. All of these things are true. But none of them mean that The Sitter is some sort of act of evil, as the majority of its reviews have contended; if it's a broad comedy that primarily functions as a cheap rental or pay-cable time-waster, it would be hard to mount much of a case that those are loftier goals than the star and filmmakers intended. This is a film created in the somewhat less than artsy mold of the '80s comedy, and its primary objective was apparently to remake Adventures in Babysitting with more f-words. Sure, everyone should aim high, but was greatness ever really in the cards for this one?

First and foremost, it is a Jonah Hill picture--a vehicle for a comedic personality, just as The Bellboy or The Man on the Flying Trapeze or Ace Ventura: Pet Detective were, hand-crafted for his specific persona (Hill is credited as an executive producer). He plays Noah Griffith, a young man whose life is going to waste: kicked out of college, living at home, and deluding himself about his less than reciprocal relationship with dream girl Marisa (Ari Graynor). As a favor to his mom--and for a bit of much-needed cash--he agrees to babysit for family friends, who leave him in charge of medicated Slater (Max Records, from Where the Wild Things Are), celeb-obsessed Blithe (Landry Bender), and adopted sociopath Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez). He's planning to spend the evening jockeying their remote control, but when Marisa calls offering sex if he'll pick up some coke for her--erm, for her friend--Noah puts his charges in the minivan for a quick run into Manhattan. No prizes for guessing that it doesn't go smoothly.

It's too easy to note that the progression of events is woefully predictable--Green and writers Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka are loading up the expected clich├ęs and homages (for a while, it seemed like every damn '80s comedy had an unnecessary drug subplot--even Three Men and a Baby had one, for God's sake--and the pool hall scene is clearly riffing on the blues club bit in Babysitting). Covering familiar ground is no crime; the trouble is, more often than not, the filmmakers don't manage to put an original comic spin on the familiar. The energy is right, and the cast is terrific; Sam Rockwell and JB Smoove are well-chosen villains, while Jessica Hecht, Bruce Altman, and Method Man turn up in small roles (as does a wasted Nicky Katt). But too many scenes miss the mark, and many of the jokes are either too easy or just plain MIA.

But the execution occasionally transcends the weaknesses of the script. Much of that is due to Hill's exquisite comic timing, the way he'll throw away a reaction line, or the long beat he takes after Rockwell's egg explodes in the mini-van. And his odd sincerity is just right for an unexpected coming-out scene with another character, which is clumsy but heartfelt, and kind of remarkable for a modern studio comedy (Hill's "There's nothing wrong with you; you're normal, just super-gay" is a long way from the vile "faggots" of Project X). The supporting players get their moments as well--Graynor's feisty party girl is fun to watch, and Rockwell and Smoove have good chemistry, particularly when they do their spontaneous Kid 'N Play moves.

Don't get me wrong: The Sitter is not a great comedy, not by a long shot. But it has some fun, offers a few laughs, and doesn't overstay its welcome. Frankly, that's more rare than you'd think in modern studio comedies.

"The Sitter" is out now on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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