When the end credits of The Sitter began to roll, a simple question emerged: What happened to David Gordon Green? As this new hackneyed comedy validates even more than the trite Your Highness, the young director who once gave us incredibly thoughtful and original films like George Washington and Undertow seems to have lost himself in the wide world of Hollywood trash.
An alleged Adventures in Babysitting for hipsters, The Sitter stars Jonah Hill as Noah, an overweight and unmotivated twenty-something who agrees to babysit three children so that his divorced mom can go out with friends. But when the kids prove to be head cases and his “girlfriend” calls wanting drugs, the whole night turns into one predictable mess.
Through this mess, a story never surfaces, just random comedic sketches that don’t connect to a bigger narrative. From the opening sequence, which borrows from American Pie with a shocking sexual act, to a fight scene between a homosexual drug dealer (a disappointing Sam Rockwell) and a gang of racist Black Americans, The Sitter feels artless and un-cinematic, like an overly crass episode of Saturday Night Live.
The characters are no better, with each presented as an exaggerated caricature. This is especially true of the three children. There’s Slater (Max Records of Where the Wild Things Are) a flamboyant middle school student who comes out in the film, Blithe (Landry Bender), his elementary-aged sister who wears makeup and behaves like a refugee from the set of Toddlers and Tiaras, and Rodrigo, their adopted brother from Ecuador who enjoys running away and destroying things.
Such characters possess the potential to be quite hilarious, but Green, working from a script by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, doesn’t take an idiosyncratic approach to them (or to the film as a whole, for that matter). Instead, he plays the characters straight, asking us to accept them as real human beings with whom we should sympathize. That simply doesn’t work (nor does the fact that he exposes these young actors to such filth).
Green also makes the mistake of casting Hill in the lead role as the dysfunctional Noah. Though a talented performer with the ability to do both comedy and drama, Hill is not up to the task of carrying The Sitter by himself. Without a stronger, more serious character to whom he can serve as the comic foil, Hill’s physical humor and countless one-liners eventually grow tiresome.
But even with better acting and characters, The Sitter’s feeble story ultimately holds the film back. It’s as shoddy and contrived as The Hangover Part 2 (and as morally bankrupt as that entire franchise). Unlike Judd Apatow, who makes similar comedies, Green doesn’t move beyond the vulgarity to explore something deeper. Whereas The Sitter is crass just to be crass, Apatow films are usually crass to make a point.
Perhaps in an attempt to channel John Hughes (something else Apatow does well), The Sitter does eventually take a turn for the sentimental. But by then, it feels disingenuous and manufactured. Worse, it doesn’t tie in with the film as a whole, which up until this point has avoided such things. As a result, toward the end when Noah encourages Blithe to take off her makeup and she complies, the scene comes across as laughably cheap because there has been no catalyst for this inner transformation.
Given the absence of morality, spirituality and, well, any bigger implications, as well as the film’s unimaginative aesthetics, Green’s latest effort suggests a forsaking of his earlier promise. With The Sitter, he completes the process begun with Your Highness (or even Pineapple Express), cashing in his status as “promising young auteur” for that of “purveyor of Hollywood schlock.” It’s a puzzling transformation and one we can only hope is temporary.
David Gordon Green
Writers: Brian Gatewood & Alessandro Tanaka
Starring: Jonah Hill, Ari Graynor & Sam Rockwell
Release Date: Dec. 9, 2011