Monday, December 12, 2011

Never Sit a Sitter: A Look At THE SITTER


- What's going on with the state of comedy-film criticism these days? Even as various other genres slowly gain critical respectability, good comedies still get thrown into the bottom of the barrell. It's a bit different in TV, where great comedies like Community and Louie are heralded, and where even middling comedies like 2 Broke Girls receive praise. But for some reason, comedies on the big screen continually get the shaft. Unless it's a whimsical Woody Allen farce or a highbrow British film, critics don't seem to know how to talk about comedy - and so they simply dismiss it. Case in point: the recent work of David Gordon Green. Movies like Pineapple Express and Your Highness have cracked me up, and yet every time you read a review of one of Green's films, it's always some critic on his or her high horse waxing nostalgic for his days as a director of Very Serious indie dramas. Personally, I've found Green to be one of the freshest voices in comedy of the last few years. He knows how to combine hilarious dialogue with high production value - crafting comedies that contain exciting action and suspense, even as they keep the laughs coming. I also like that his comedies aren't necessarilly worried about sentimentality, or romance, or whatever. They're about being funny first, and if sentimentality fits, then fine, if it doesn't, then hey, who needs it?

Now, I'm not here calling THE SITTER a masterpiece or anything. But I am calling it a funny film with some sharp writing, fun characters, a good premise, and a fun take on the whole "into the night" genre of comedy. It's a nice little mashup of Adventures in Babysitting and Superbad, and, though not without its flaws, I'd still probably rank it as one of the better comedies I've seen in 2011.

In The Sitter, Jonah Hill plays Noah Griffith - a college dropout who's currently slumming it at home with his mom - no job, no real prospects. He likes to think that a girl he's been seeing - Marisa (Ari Graynor)- is his girlfriend, but in fact the two have yet to, really, um, consummate the relationship (you might say it's a bit one-sided), and clearly, she's still hung up on her ex, a buff kickboxing champion. Meanwhile, Noah's financially-struggling mom faces self-doubt as she looks to get back into the dating pool herself. His dad, a wealthy jewerly store owner, has long since left after an affair with (ironically) a babysitter. One night, Noah's mom asks him for a favor. Her friend wants to take her to a fundraiser, where she hopes to set her up with a guy. Only problem is, the friend needs a babysitter to look after her three kids. Despite his reluctance to babysit, Noah agrees so as to help out his mom. And that's when things get pretty crazy. After meeting the three kids who he'll be looking after, Noah gets a call from Marisa, who finally seems ready to go the distance with her increasingly-desperate not-quite-boyfriend. Only catch is that Marisa is at a big party in the city, and she wants Noah to go pick up some drugs from her (ex?) dealer in exchange for the chance to do the horizontal tango. Clearly, she's a psycho-bitch. But Noah is Jonah Hill (at the apex of his overwightness, prior to his recent slimming down), and he's got a chance - against all odds, to do the deed with Ari Graynor. And so into the night he goes, three crazy kids in tow. And as you might expect, many a hijink ensues.

Hill is one of those guys who probably gets knocked a bit for being overexposed. But the fact is, he's great at delivering a funny line, and in The Sitter, he's got a lot of good material to work with. Not only that, but he gets to play off a talented bunch of kids, as well as guys like Sam Rockwell, JB Smoove, and Method Man. Hill really carries the movie, and does a nice job of balancing the smart-ass humor with some moments that are more genuine and heartfelt. The kids are all really good though. You've got a 13 year-old boy struggling with anxiety issues, a ten year-old girl who thinks she's Paris Hilton, and an adopted anarchist-in-training from El Salvador, who may very well end running a drug cartel in his not-so-distant-future. The kid actors each play these parts to perfection, and do a nice job of working with Hill. On the other hand, Sam Rockwell is great, but his character - an oddball drug-dealer - was a little too random and ill-defined for my tastes. Similarly, JB Smoove gets in a couple of hilarious lines, but feels underused overall. I guess that after seeing the super-hilarious (and tonally-similar) 30 Minutes Or Less this past summer, it would be hard for the villains here to compare to that film's incredibly entertaining antagonists (and let's be honest, I was secretly hoping for some sort of Danny McBride cameo here that, sadly, never came).

Anyways, I felt like The Sitter maintained a really good, brisk pace, and the action and momentum rarely let up. As per usual, Green knows how to pull off some really funny, wacky, set-piece action scenes - and this one has a couple of particularly well-done car chases. I also loved the rivalry between Noah and an old high school classmate who still holds a grudge due to a long-ago incident where Noah defiled her grandmother's ashes. Some great scenes transpire between them.

I felt like a couple of things held the movie back from being 100% awesome. One thing was simply that the jokes weren't always there. There are some great bits of dialogue and some really inspired scenes, but overall I thought the movie needed a few more gut-bustingly hilarious, uber-memorable moments to really make it pop. Some moments that should have been barnburners were ultimately more worthy of a chuckle than a guffaw. As I mentioned, one of the bigger issues is that Sam Rockwell's villain doesn't always work - he feels like a hodgepodge of comic ideas thrown together, rather than one really good premise for an antagonist. I also thought the script felt a little all-over-the-place in terms of the nuts and bolts of it. Characters pop up a little too conveniently, and things tend to get resolved a little too neatly. You need some element of randomness in this genre, but sometimes it was a little less than clear why Noah was going to the places he was going. And that brings me to tone - I think this is where the movie ultimately tries a little too hard to please everyone, but suffers a bit for it. What I mean is - the film has a bit of an odd mix of crude, R-rated humor and sweet sentimentality that feels like it might belong more in a PG film. Now, I think the movie pulls it off - mostly. At the same time though, you do sort of wish that the movie had stayed consistently subversive and gone a little darker, instead of eventually becoming a more predictable "everyone learns their lessons" style of comedy.

With that said, I think back to the other comedies I've seen this year. Movies like Horrible Bosses, Bad Teacher ... The Sitter is much smarter and funnier than either, and is, to me, up there with Bridesmaids, Your Highness, and 30 Minutes Or Less as one of the year's funniest films. So sure, maybe David Gordon Green has some more somber dramas left in him. But personally, I would love to see him keep cranking out the comedy.

My Grade: B+

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