There’s a lovely, empowering “It Gets Better” message about being gay embedded in David Gordon Green’s snappy comedy The Sitter. But don’t get the wrong idea: The sweet scene arrives at about the halfway point between the gag when babysitter Jonah Hill gets mistaken for a pedophile (funny offensive) and the bit about how handy it is to have a black street gang on your side (dumb offensive).
Noah (Hill) is on an involuntary break from college, living in the New York suburbs with his understanding single mom (Jessica Hecht), which makes him a lot like Hill’s character in Cyrus, minus the personality disorder. He gets suckered into babysitting for her friends the Pedullas because their sitter cancelled on them, threatening plans to introduce his mom to a promising single man. Noah doesn’t want his mom to miss the date. He’s already established himself as a pushover in an opening sequence with his “girlfriend” Marissa (Ari Graynor) during which he performs a sexual favor on her without getting anything in return. She thanks him the way people thank each other for lifts home. Graynor is delightfully horrible as usual.
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His charges are a nightmare, but an appealing batch of child actors. Slater (Max Records from Where the Wild Things Are, looking like a long lost Culkin) is 13 and heavily medicated for severe anxiety issues. Blithe (Landry Bender) is a celebrity-obsessed creature of about eight. She greets Noah with the pronouncement that Noah is a “hot name.” He begs to differ: “It’s actually biblical.” “The Bible is a hot book,” comes the retort. She’s smeared with makeup. An evening of watching iCarly is unlikely to satisfy this child. Finally, there is Rodrigo (clever Kevin Hernandez), who falls between them in age. The Pedullas adopted Rodrigo from El Salvador a year ago. He likes fireworks, breaking things and speaks like a gangbanger. Politically correct, The Sitter is not.
Of course this quartet leaves the house to venture into the big city. While this may sound like an updated version of the 80s film Adventures in Babysitting, it’s a bit more R-rated. Marissa calls, and asks Noah to procure her some coke from drug dealer Karl (Sam Rockwell, in manic mode, which grows boring) and deliver it to her at a party. The children are not helpful on this errand and Noah ends up in debt to the unstable Karl. From there, it’s just a hop, skip and jump to grand theft.
The Sitter falls far short of the joyous insanity of the raunchy/sweet Superbad, which made Hill a star. The preview audience I saw it with laughed hard at a reference to Jon Benet Ramsey, but had the decency to fall quiet during the awkward scenes that showed the children under direct threat from Karl’s pistola. After that, the movie never recovered its rhythm.
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But Hill is a strong comic, and this movie, considerably funnier than director Green’s last, the execrable Your Highness — low standard — allows the actor to show off his beautiful timing (also evident in Moneyball, but without the hijinks). Screenwriters Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka have barely a screen credit between them, but they understand the Hill persona, a little whisper here, an off-the-cuff insult that lands as softly as a kiss and a nonplussed doubletake followed by a quick rejoinder. Noah is the fat guy who wears a plaid flannel shirt underneath a jacket opened to reveal a clashing plaid lining. He’s also good and decent and open to admitting all of his faults. “I had a month-long, intense addiction to Robitussin,” he tells Slater, trying to put him at ease. The Sitter is predicated on a belief that chunky Jonah Hill, or at least the persona he presents, is secretly supercool. While it turns out to be a wisp of a movie, on that front at least, it is persuasive.
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