Adventures in David Gordon Green’s VHS Collection

12/09/2011 4:00 AM |

The Sitter
Directed by David Gordon Green

David Gordon Green’s hard turn into broad comedy may have frustrated his indie-purist fans—and perhaps secretly delighted anyone who dismissed his indie work as affected sub-Malick knockoffs. As a committed Green fan, I can speak to the former rather than the latter: his comedies haven’t bowled me over like Snow Angels or Undertow, but have fascinating, sometimes beautiful idiosyncrasies of their own.

The Sitter, his third studio comedy in a row, continues his appropriation of 80s artifacts; this time, he mixes Adventures in Babysitting with a small helping of After Hours. Jonah Hill plays Noah, a twentysomething college kick-out in a mostly one-sided relationship with Marisa (Ari Graynor). He volunteers for a night of babysitting for a friend of the family so his mother can enjoy a night out. At first, he’s happy (well, actually, kind of surly) to sit around and watch crummy TV, leaving the kids to their own devices. But Marisa calls, offering previously withheld sex if he can buy her some coke and meet her at a party in the city, so he takes off in a minivan with Slater (Max Records), Blithe (Landry Bender), and Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez) in tow.

From there, Noah’s adventures in babysitting are predictable in the broad sense—he and the kids destroy property, get lost, and run afoul of, well, they just run afoul in general—though less so in the particulars, especially whenever Sam Rockwell is onscreen as genially unhinged drug dealer “Karl, with a K.” The wild streets of New York are played mostly by North Brooklyn (with a cameo from Grand Prospect Hall), but that’s fine because Green and his longtime cinematographer Tim Orr don’t seem interested in shooting the city as an 80s-style nightmare; through their eyes, it’s more of a sketchy, eccentric street fair.

Green’s comedies don’t always build the way they should; at his most slack, he tends to patch together episodes, and The Sitter, untethered from the genre homage which kept Pineapple Express or even Your Highness on track (or closer to tracks), is his patchiest yet. It feels cut down to the bone; a few times, the movie pauses in the middle of transitional montages for a single joke, as if selecting fifteen seconds of dialogue from, presumably, many excised minutes. But if The Sitter, like Your Highness, is more consistently amusing than flat-out hilarious, Green finds laughs in little details: the throwaway shallowness of Marisa’s dialogue (exclaimed with great zeal by the wonderful Graynor), the sweet awkwardness of the redhaired twins who practically beg Slater to crash their friend’s bat mitzvah, and especially Karl’s gloriously bizarre lair, lined with musclemen and dinosaur eggs. Throughout, art director Matthew Munn and production designer Richard Wright have fun blurring the line between set design and sight gags, while helping to maintain Green’s love of shabbiness; this may be the non-period 2011 movie with the most CRT television sets used as props.

The Sitter is also the last of 2011’s many R-rated comedies, but its surprise comes less from the raunch, scatology, or profanity (all of which are present, though not leaned upon) than its earnestness. Dirty comedy with a heart of gold is nothing new, of course, but Green’s comedies don’t just tack on easy sentiment; all three have a sincere loneliness and hurt at their core. Here he reveals the sadness of Noah’s slacker life—his father left the family and started another—and how that develops into empathy for his unruly charges. During a climactic confrontation with another adult, Noah describes them as “two fucked-up kids meeting on the playground,” which could apply to almost anyone in the movie: damaged children, wishing for better lives.

The kids themselves could’ve been given more notes to play and more time to play them, but what’s there is clever: Blithe is a pre-teen obsessed with makeup, celebutantes, signature fragrances, clubs, and hotness, with an ambiguous understanding of what any of those things actually mean. Rodrigo, for his part, also tries to act like an adult, or at least like a menacing teenager; a recent adoption into the family, he feels alienated from the other kids, living in a garage apartment and collecting fireworks. It might seem like a caricature if young Kevin Hernandez didn’t have such confidence. Actual teenager Slater, meanwhile, well-played by Max from Where the Wild Things Are, may be on his way to closet-case status, which the movie—through Noah—treats with real sensitivity. Between the coming-out counseling and the inclusion of Roxanne (Kylie Burbury), a no-big-deal African-American love interest, The Sitter feels downright progressive, a rebuke to the brocentrism of Todd Phiilips and his ilk. For all of its surface inappropriate behavior, this isn’t a nasty movie—none of Green’s comedies are. Whether you find them funny or not, he means it.

Opens December 9