(by Dustin Putman
A crasser but very nearly as sweet unofficial remake of 1987's "Adventures in Babysitting," "The Sitter" trades in Elisabeth Shue for Jonah Hill and three rambunctious charges for...three slightly more rambunctious charges as they embark on a wild, dangerous, unforgettable night in the city. For David Gordon Green, the indie-auteur-gone-mainstream director, this winning confection more than makes up for his previous debacle, 2011's flat-footed medieval comedy "Your Highness." Straddling the offbeat with the mass-market, the film's unfiltered language and brazen subject matter share time with an underlying tone that would best be described as John Hughesian in its soul-searching gentleness. It frequently splits the sides without needing to strain for humor, is consistently entertaining for all of its brisk 81 minutes, and concludes with characters who have learned a few things along the way and are maybe a little wiser than they were at the start. Article continues below
An aimless college student on suspension for some bad decisions, Noah Griffith (Jonah Hill) has seen the error of his ways even as he realizes his life is going nowhere fast. With his divorced mother (Jessica Hecht) excitedly looking forward to her first date in ages if her married friends who are also set to go can find someone to watch their three children, Noah begrudgingly agrees to babysit. An uneventful evening of simply trying to put up with the kids—"woe-is-me" 13-year-old Slater (Max Records), his 8-year-old celebutante-wannabe sister Blithe (Landry Bender), and bomb-making El Salvadorean adopted brother Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez)—suddenly becomes a little more exciting when Noah's sort-of girlfriend Marisa (Ari Graynor) invites him to a party in the city and tempts him with sex. She also wants him to stop by drug dealer Karl's (Sam Rockwell) place on the way to pick up cocaine for her "friend"—never a good sign. Noah is way out of his element when he decides to take the kids and their family's minivan, and things only spiral out of control from there. If the four of them can survive the night, however, they just might make it out the other side changed for the better.
"The Sitter" abides by a common formula—in fact, its blueprint isn't a heck of a lot different from the recent, far more scattershot "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas"—with auspicious debuting screenwriters Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka knowing exactly when to follow what's expected and when to slyly diverge from the norm. The film isn't shy with four-letter words and telling it like it is, but these come out of natural behavior that is all the more amusing because of its authenticity and not as the mere desperate punchline for a joke. If studios weren't so obsessed about the bottom-line at the expense of creative dignity, and parents weren't so hung up on "protecting" their precious children, one can see how under-17 audiences would be tickled with the film. Sure, smaller kids probably don't need to know about "BJs" and the term, "sharted," but underneath that raucous, occasionally lewd exterior is a true beating heart that thoughtfully considers the feelings of its characters and the value of one's own morality.
Noah might not "have it all together," but he is smart enough to know that Marisa is taking advantage of him, even as he travels to be with her. Yes, she's immature and selfish, the kind of girl who plays the opposite sex to get what she wants, but Noah doesn't have a high enough opinion of himself to bother stopping her from stringing him along. His trek to finding a backbone—one that he finely tunes over and over, as in a scene where he faces off against Tina (Samira Wiley), a grudge-holding former high school classmate whom he once wronged—runs parallel to his discovery that not all is perfect in Slater's, Blithe's, and Rodrigo's lives, either. Her face painted up to look like a "Toddlers & Tiaras" contestant—or, as Noah acerbically calls her, "JonBenét Ramsey"—Blithe is well aware of all the lyrics to the latest explicit rap and hip-hop hits and strives to be nothing more than famous for being famous. Somewhere along the way, she's lost the innocent child inside. Rodrigo is a tornado of terror who's acting out because he feels like he doesn't belong in his adopted family. And as for confused teen Slater, his high-strung personality and the betrayal he feels when he catches his best guy friend hanging out with someone else leads Noah to confront him about the possibility that he might be gay. This turn of events is not treated as a goof or the entry point for a bunch of offensive stereotypes, but with an honest, forthright sensitivity that makes it something of a groundbreaker in major studio comedies.
Noah is far from perfect, but around the time he's sitting down and telling Slater he's as normal as anyone else, the audience has grown to love him. It's been said before and will be said again that Jonah Hill (2011's "Moneyball") comes close to being the most likable and endearing male actor working in film today. Even when his characters are being smart-asses, Hill finds the truth in who they are and the goodness in their souls. He's also an unforced ace at comic timing and just as adept in the serious moments. The scenes he shares with a cute college acquaintance named Roxanne (Kylie Bunbury) whom he runs back into are brief but palpable, director David Gordon Green and his actors doing wonders with a romantic subplot that refuses to just be an afterthought. Kylie Bunbury (2011's "Prom") is a soft-spoken charmer as Roxanne, and when she tells Noah that she always thought he was sweet and funny, you believe her. Noah is both of those things.
As Slater, it is a treat to see Max Records again, he of 2009's astonishing "Where the Wild Things Are." The last two years have made him older, but no less intuitive with his talent. More than that, his character, who becomes gradually more comfortable in his skin while still realistically having a lot of growing yet to do, stands as a positive role model for teens around his age. In addition, newcomer Landry Bender is a scene-stealer as the snootily self-assured Blithe, while Ari Graynor (2011's "What's Your Number?") outdoes herself as the manipulative Marisa. Graynor takes a potentially one-note character and breathes newfound dimensions and spunk into a usually stock part. That the film stays with her as long as it does and considers, by her last scene, that she may have a sympathetic conscience after all, is something rarely bothered with in by-the-numbers Hollywood screenwriting and worth applauding.
As the plot requires, "The Sitter" is episodic, but the series of misadventures Noah faces assuredly hit their mark here as his night of terror turns into one rather momentous for himself and his future. This feel-good character arc is standard and deserved, but not nearly as foregone a conclusion as the exquisite music score composed by Jeff McIlwain (2008's "Snow Angels") and David Wingo (2011's "Take Shelter"), light-hearted melodies giving way to a beautiful intermittent whimsy and earnest interludes transcending what is typically expected of the genre. In no threat of overstaying its welcome at under an hour and a half, "The Sitter" is pleasant and funny and in some key moments even a little thrilling. In keeping honest, though, it is quite surprising that the story creators of "Adventures in Babysitting" aren't at least given a shout-out in the credits. The resemblance is no mistake, right down to the ending where the three kids look out the upstairs bedroom window at their babysitter as he/she is visited by his/her respective love interest. It's repeated because it's just the right conclusion to the story, and director David Gordon Green knows it. It would have been nice to give credit where credit is due.