Don’t Be Mean: ‘The Sitter’

[26 March 2012]

By Jesse Hassenger

David Gordon Green’s The Sitter was sold to moviegoers as an outrageous R-rated comedy, and sold by film critics as the nadir of former wunderkind Green’s descent into studio-comedy hackery. Really, though, it’s too sweet for either of those distinctions. The film does indeed star a typically profane Jonah Hill as a loser-slacker type charged with babysitting three weird kids, and it does make time for a variety of raunchy, vulgar, or otherwise inappropriate-to-babysitting gags. But it has a core sweetness both atypical of an assembly-line raunchy comedy and indicative of Green’s directorial touch.

That unexpected sweetness—the movie’s philosophy could be boiled down to a simplistic but heartwarming “don’t be mean”—begins early, as Noah (Hill), on a permanent detour from college following a DUI, takes the babysitting job so that the parents can take his single mom out and introduce her to a charming surgeon. Noah initially plans to sit on the couch and ignore Slater (Max Records from Where the Wild Things Are), Blithe (Landry Bender), and the adopted Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), but his not-really girlfriend Marisa (Ari Graynor, an expert at playing up sloshy self-interest) calls and offers him sex if he brings her some cocaine in the city. Noah packs up the kids and commences a darker Adventures in Babysitting. David Gordon Green, as he proved with his other 2011 comedy Your Highness, obviously loves his disreputable ‘80s subgenres.

Green, as almost every review of his comedies must note, began by making reflective, Malick-y indies like George Washington and All the Real Girls (Malick even produced Undertow, a lyrical riff on Night of the Hunter), but he revealed a sillier side with the stoner action romp Pineapple Express, which afforded him the opportunity to release both Highness and The Sitter, back to back box office disappointments and critical disasters, in 2011.

Yet if Your Highness and The Sitter lack the lyricism of Green’s more serious work, they have their sneaky charms and feel only somewhat less personal. His earlier movies chronicled the American South, but it turns out he’s an expert at suburban mis-en-scène, too, finding unspoken character details in the kids’ bedrooms, sketchy house parties, the contrasting-class living rooms of Noah and his charges, and most outlandish and hilarious, the lair of drug dealer Karl (Sam Rockwell), a combination construction site, locker room, and drug lab, with bodybuilders lifting weights and performing bizarre experiments in the background.

Rockwell starred in Green’s sadder, lovelier Snow Angels (his co-star Nicky Katt also turns up here in a smaller role), and was obviously given, alongside comedian JB Smoove, free rein by Green to go over the top here as Karl, who immediately promotes Noah to “eighth-best friend” status but nonetheless threatens his life when Rodrigo steals a dinosaur egg full of cocaine (Karl’s weirdness is nothing if not specific). More grounded Team Green support comes from his long-time cinematographer Tim Orr; in the past, he’s found beauty in abandoned junkyards and overgrown fields, and takes easily to both suburban blight and rainy urban streets (the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint stands in for a good chunk of New York City, though there are also some detours to Park Slope).

For all of the careful visual touches and decent laugh lines from Hill, though, The Sitter is flimsier and less developed than Green’s previous comedies. All three have a shaggy, episodic structure, and this one in particular apes the Pineapple Express formula of overtaxed slackers placed into comically dangerous situations. But The Sitter also feels cut down to its barest essentials; even the extended version available on DVD fails to clear the 90-minute mark. This makes the movie admirably fleet but sometimes too thin to walk straight: there are moments where the movie plugs a handful of dialogue exchanges into montages in a way that suggests salvaged footage more than the freewheeling improv Hill is known for.

The screenplay has sensitive arcs in store for all three kids, but rushes through them. Slater gets the most delicate, verging on heartbreaking, as Noah comes to intuit a secret about his inner life, while Blythe’s is more satirical: she’s a preteen girl who worships at the altar of celebutantes and signature fragrances. “That’s a hot name,” she tells Noah when they meet (when he tells her it’s Biblical, she is undeterred: “The Bible is a hot book!”). Rodrigo’s acting out over not fitting in with his adopted family gets the most cursory treatment, reduced to a few killer sight gags and an afterthought of a heart-to-heart with Slater.

Even in the longer cut, more of the extra time goes to Rockwell and Smoove—not unwelcome (especially when extending Hill’s long journey into Rockwell’s sinister palace) but providing no solution to the movie’s raggedness. The Blu-Ray’s 25 minutes of additional deleted and extended scenes provide insight into that raggedness: while a lot of “extended” versions of scenes tend to add just 30 or 60 seconds, several of these double or triple in length, with far more room to breathe. Minor story details are clarified, performers like Smoove and Ari Graynor get more to do, and there’s even an excised Hill/Rockwell fight on a very David Gordon Green-y old-timey carousel (the kind that would’ve sat rusting in the woods in Undertow). 

These moments won’t pacify the most disappointed of the director’s fans, but they would’ve made for a smoother yet even more offbeat ride. But even on the unrated cut, only slivers of the deletions make it back in—an odd decision given that the longest possible version of this movie would still come in well under two hours. Both versions of the movie, then, feel more studio-hacked than director-approved.

It’s hard to know for sure without a greater presence from Green; the disc lacks a commentary track, and even some of the making-of materials focus more on Hill. Green contributed to the enthusiastic Your Highness track, but neither he nor Hill takes to the microphone to further contextualize The Sitter as a passion project. The easy reasoning is that this isn’t one; it feels like a lark with an unnecessary 90-minute cap on its running time.

Regardless of whose cut this is, though, Green shouldn’t be dismissed as a cashing-in wallower. His comedies, as as mangy and ambling as it can be, are no less sincere than his dramas. Ten or 15 years from now, after Green has been afforded the chance to experiment in more genres, The Sitter may look like, if not a lost masterpiece, at least a likable, neglected little kid.

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