Silver Screen: The Sitter ***1/2
If there's such a thing as a low-concept comedy, a perfect example would be the Jonah Hill vehicle The Sitter. Director David Gordon Green, a cerebral indie darling increasingly drawn to goofball comedies, applies his offbeat sensibilities to a plot that's almost defiantly pedestrian. The result is an amiable and intermittently very funny movie that still never really transcends its mundane premise and structure.
The film opens with slacker Noah Griffith (Hill, still in his chubby phase) going down on his lady friend Marisa (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist scene stealer Ari Graynor). You can almost hear a coked-up Green shouting, “This ain't your grandmama's babysitting movie!” in the background.
After the overly bombastic opening, though, the characters take shape with a little more subtlety. Marisa is clearly toying with Noah, who's unemployed and living with his lonely single mom after being kicked out of college. Noah is a selfish manchild, but not a cartoonishly self-unaware one à la Adam Sandler. When his mother's first date in years is threatened with cancellation, he offers to pitch in and babysit three kids for the night so the other adults can go out.
Noah's stuck with junior-high schooler Slater (Max Records), an anxiety-riddled mess; Slater's tween sister Blithe (Landry Bender), who's obsessed with being a reality-show celebrity; and their adopted brother Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), a budding criminal and amateur firebug. The evening's already off to a bad start when Marisa calls and agrees to sleep with Noah if he can deliver some cocaine to her at a party, so he packs the kids into the minivan and heads into New York City.
What ensues is a pretty standard-issue “one crazy night” scenario that sends Noah and his charges on an episodic journey through the dark underbelly of New York. Because that's what always happens to people in movies like this, they get tangled up with some drug dealers (Sam Rockwell and J.B. Smoove)-- the other options are mafia thugs and jewel thieves-- and befriend a bizarre cast of bit characters along the way.
If that sounds an awful lot like the plot to Adventures in Babysitting, well, hey, congratulations, you win. It's hard to tell if the script, from Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, is an homage, a pseudo-remake, a self-aware riff, or just a knockoff, but Green approaches the material head-on. Green made his name with deliberately paced realist dramas like George Washington and Snow Angels, and both his (relatively) big-budget comedies, Pineapple Express and Your Highness, have been oddball affairs that effectively lampooned the genres in which they existed, the latter of the two by going so far over the top as to suggest a druggy Mel Brooks movie. But here Green plays it pretty straight, saving his weird flourishes for the details; it's like watching somebody do a paint-by-numbers picture but with a crazy, mismatched array of colors.
It works well enough. Assuming you like Hill-- I do-- there are some exceptionally funny sequences, and in between slapstick escapades the star gets some nice, quiet moments with the young actors, especially Records. (Poor Rodrigo, though, never grows beyond cheap ethnic caricature.) As for those big comic setpieces, they don't work quite as well as Hill's motormouthed quips. Sam Rockwell's emotionally sensitive drug-dealer character lives in a hilarious setting of rollerskating gay bodybuilders and modern artists, but the character himself is flat and familiar, and Rockwell is wasted in the part (as is the very funny but not very present Smoove).
It's been fun to see Green, who has made some interesting and very heavy films in the aforementioned George Washington as well as the earthy, intense Undertow, let his freak flag fly. But with each successive comedy he seems to move further into more conventional territory, to become a little less stylistically distinct, and while it's fun to see him liven up what could otherwise be totally forgettable material, it's hard not to think his talents might be better put to use someplace else.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.