Jonah Hill, Sam Rockwell, Ari Graynor, Jessica Hecht, Method Man, Max Records, JB Smoove
(20th Century Fox)
US theatrical: 9 Dec 2011 (General release)
UK theatrical: 20 Jan 2012 (General release)
It’s definitely a strange unfolding flower. People will come up to me now, like 19-year-olds, talking about my early films. And they know me because of my recent films. So they’ve used that to research another era of my career. Hopefully I’ll have the next era of my career beginning shortly. I always want to try new things.
—David Gordon Green
Noah (Jonah Hill) loves his mom. This may not occur to you in the first moment you see him in The Sitter, when he’s going down on Marisa (Ari Graynor), who’s not exactly his girlfriend, more like someone who appreciates that he can, as Noah puts it, “actually write a short story with my tongue.” It may also not be your first thought when you see him head home and park himself in front of the TV, then refuse to answer the phone even when his mother, Sandy (Jessica Hecht), asks him more than once.
But still, Noah’s devotion to his mom is the point of departure for David Gordon Green’s latest movie, as it makes him sympathetic in the most generic sense. When he sees her all dressed up for a blind date with a rich guy, prettily excited to be moving on at last, years after her diamond-dealer husband (Bruce Altman) took off, Noah is actually moved to do something. Specifically, when her date falls through because a babysitter cancels, Noah agrees to fill in. This even though, he says more than once, he’s not a “sitter.”
Thus Noah enters into a dark night’s adventure (inspired in part, says Green, by After Hours and Something Wild). The combination of his good intentions and reluctance help make his bad decisions seem less reprehensible. They are still tedious though, as the movie delivers to the sorts of expectations raised (or lowered) by the burgeoning Apatow Effect.
And so: Noah seems to be all kinds of transgressive—crude and careless and rebellious—but really, he’s just a kid feeling abandoned by his bad dad. He only wants to be appreciated, but so far, hasn’t figured out how. As in all the boy-men movies, Noah’s slackerish intelligence is enhanced by the dullards around him, his weird kindness stands out in comparison to Marisa’s utter selfishness, and his maturity (so-called) is underlined by the brutally childish children he sits.
These appendages are introduced in sequence, each in desperate need of inspiration from their unlikely mentor: parked on a couch when Noah walks in, 13-year-old Slater (Max Records) explains that he’s not babysitting because he’s perpetually worried and overmedicated. His little sister Blithe (Landry Bender) has her own anxieties, covered over by slathered on makeup, a fondness for pink clothes and sparkles, and Paris Hilton (everything is “hot” or “super-hot” for Blithe, including Noah’s name: “It’s actually Biblical,” he explains, which she trumps easily: “The Bible’s a hot book”). Neither sibling quite knows what to do with their newly adopted brother from El Salvador, Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), a baby gangster with slicked back hair and pajamas adorned with trucks, experienced with knives and explosives—and oh yes, known for running away.
Now that the evening’s trajectory is more or less laid out, Noah packs his charges in the car and heads into the city, where he means to rendezvous with Marisa, who’s called him with a request, that he pick up some coke from her dealer, Karl with a K (Sam Rockwell), who is attended by an stoned assistant on roller skates (thank you, Paul Thomas Anderson, for that iconic figure) and a partner played by JB Smoove, in something like high gear (and condemned to act out a gag that must have seemed hilarious in the writers’ room, one plainly labeled “nuts on fire”). Rockwell, at least, appears at ease amid the mayhem, or maybe it’s just that Karl’s combinatory idiocy and genius is the mayhem.
All these plot parts produce what you think they will: coke is blown all over someone’s face, the dealer seeks payment and/or revenge, and toilets explode. As Noah tries to survive theadversity and also embody the lessons we all need to learn from it, he maintains something like a practical approach, conniving to find cash to appease Karl and dragging the kids along from catastrophe to catastrophe, so they can simultaneously exacerbate and ameliorate each stand-off (Method Man’s scary crew in a bar is charmed by Blithe’s dancing; Marisa’s bully of an ex is no match for Rodrigo’s MMA moves).
For all the violence and the cursing and the wild riding, Noah is, of course, en route to a realization, namely, that he’d really rather be watching the geomagnetic storm forecast for the night, a realization helped along by the fact that an old astronomy classmate, the very pretty and forgiving Roxanne (Kylie Bunbury) wants to watch it too. Such romance—the coupling and the self-discovery—is as familiar and corny as it sounds. When the movie grinds toward this resolution, including a predictable reprimand for its bad dads and a happy ending for Noah’s mom.
Still, the film is hardly unaware of what it’s up to: it’s full of asides and allusions, from the soundtrack (classics and might have been classics from Biz Markie and Raphael Saadiq, Slick Rick and the Jungle Brothers) to the nod to James Franco (on Noah’s TV in General Hospital), or in Tim Orr’s cinematography, which turns weirdly poetic when you least expect it. Not so endless as Your Highness but not so gonzo as Pineapple Express, The Sitter might still make you yearn for George Washington. But, as Green recognizes, most viewers won’t even have heard of that bit of brilliance—or All the Real Girls or Undertow—unless they’ve googled his name. All that said, it’s hard to keep your mind from wandering—to other movies or other dreams—as you watch The Sitter, because it’s actually not so funny, not challenging, and not new.