Saturday, December 10, 2011

Babysitting Adventures: THE SITTER


David Gordon Green, one of the best out-of-the-box auteurs of the last decade, has had difficulty adapting the style of his early art house hits to the big studio comedies he’s recently been helming. He started out his career with precisely observed little movies, gorgeous emotional films like All the Real Girls and Undertow. But ever since 2008’s Pineapple Express, a comic stoner thriller, Green’s been making comedies, working with bigger budgets to mixed results. Pineapple’s a film that spends an odd amount of time lingering on bodily harm – an extended shot of a bloodied ear with a chunk missing is just not funny – but also manages to be a scruffily charming buddy comedy that’s somewhat honest in its dealings with male friendship. Earlier this year, Green’s Your Highness, a fantasy parody, was wildly tone deaf and all around excruciating, a good concept gone horribly wrong. Now, with The Sitter, I’m happy to report that Green has found a nice spot between big lowbrow and the shaggy whimsical sweetness that made him an instant favorite for so many of us.

The film follows Noah Griffith (Jonah Hill), a guy in his early twenties who is in a painfully relatable post-collegiate funk. He’s jobless, living in the suburbs with his mom, and settling into a dangerously lazy pattern of lackadaisical attitudes. He’s barely holding on to a deeply flawed relationship with a selfish, deceitful young woman (Ari Graynor) who’s only taking advantage of his kindness. It’s a dead-end relationship for a guy who’s not just going down the wrong path, he’s sort of fallen down in the middle of the wrong path and can’t get up. One night, his mother (Jessica Hecht) is disappointed that her friend (Erin Daniels) has to cancel a planned double date when her babysitter gets sick. Summoning up a rare moment of altruism, Noah decides to fill in and allow his mom a rare night of fun and potential romance.

Arriving at the house, he’s immediately struck with a feeling of being in over his head. The thirteen-year-old Slater (the all-around wonderful Max Records from Where the Wild Things Are) is stewing on the sofa watching a gymnastics movie and helpfully informs that he can’t be trusted to babysit his younger siblings because of his debilitating anxiety when handed responsibility of any kind. His little sister Blithe (Landry Bender) is upstairs in a mismatched outfit which consists mostly of a long sleeve t-shirt and a tutu. She’s slathering her face with her mom’s make up. The mom helpfully informs Noah that the little girl wants to grow up to be a celebrity in the bobble-headed reality show brat tradition. When he bends down to talk to the little girl, she sprays perfume in his mouth.  Then there’s little Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), a standoffish little boy recently adopted from South America. He hisses, spits Spanish invectives, and has a destructive gleam in his eyes.

There’s a feeling that things wouldn’t go well even if the plot didn’t contrive to get them all out of the house. Noah’s would-be girlfriend calls him up and asks for some help partying, namely to pick up some cocaine from her dealer (Sam Rockwell, never not welcome). With the girl dangling an empty promise of introducing reciprocation into their one-sided relationship, Noah reluctantly packs up the kids in the minivan and drives into the big city. The film then follows a broad and crude episodic farce as the kids and their sitter get into increasingly chaotic misunderstandings involving a store clerk, the drug dealers, a group of kids at a ritzy celebration, drunken partiers, menacing pool hall patrons, cops, robbers, and more. Through it all though, the performances are so charming and Tim Orr’s camera is so shaggy beautiful in its evocation of New York nightlife both shady and swanky that the broadness (or cheapness) of some of the jokes rarely rang false for me.

What did ring warning bells for me was Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka's script's somewhat problematic treatment of some of the supporting characters. A group of African American characters, for instance, swarm about in a group that appears whenever the plot requires and without much in the way of individualized personalities. It’s an odd portrayal that leans on cheap stereotypes. Similarly, little Rodrigo is given condescending characteristics that make him seem to be hostile, unpredictable and destructive simply because he’s Latino. But then, there’s a shift. He reveals that this is his third family in as many years and he’s dreading the moment when they’ll give him away. He’s standoffish because he can’t let them get too close lest he get his heart broken again.

It’s a moment of insight into the mind of a child that is carried over into the forceful and moving running subplots with Blithe and Slater. Over the course of their night, the sitter turns out to be just what the kids need (aside from the whole hopelessly misguided trip into the city thing) to help them emotionally in ways their parents haven’t been able to care about other than by making excuses and therapy appointments. Blithe gets a subplot that turns into a lovely refutation of celebutante bad girls and Slater gets one of the most remarkable character arcs of the year, a moving and matter-of-fact inspirational subplot of self-discovery and acceptance all the more surprising for appearing so unexpectedly and so casually within a broad studio comedy.

In these moments, David Gordon Green shines. So much of his early art house efforts contain this exploration of childhood and the emotional dangers of the world between the child’s and the adult’s. I was surprised to see how nicely observed some of these characters were within a film that isn’t always so nice or observant. One could hardly accuse the film of perfection – it’s, as they say, flawed – but it’s a film of such raunch and sweetness that seems to get the proportion just right, with R-rated words and fuzzy sentiment co-existing more or less peacefully. The fact of the matter is that, whatever its problems, the film kept me entertained. It’s a derivative, scruffy one-crazy-night plot (part Adventures in Babysitting and part After Hours) but imbued with surprising energy with occasional detours into depth. It’s a solid 80 minutes of set ups and pay offs.

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