In 2008 I was at the Florida Film Festival — held in the center of America's wang — in line for a screening of David Gordon Green's Snow Angels. At the time Apatowmania was in full swing and Green's big studio debut Pineapple Express was coming out in a few short months. My friends and I knew him from All the Real Girls and his fabulous debut George Washington, so we were wondering how the director was going to handle a weed comedy with Seth Rogen and James Franco. The answer, it turned out,was "admirably," and as a result that's pretty much all he's been directing since — Your Highness, the odd episode of HBO's amazing Eastbound & Down and now The Sitter.
The Sitter is pretty much a dirty version of Chris Columbus' 1980s comedy Adventures in Babysitting — Jonah Hill plays Noah, a directionless slacker mooching off his mom who reluctantly agrees to babysit his mom's friend's kids thanks to a rare moment of selflessness. Unlike the generally agreeable characters in Adventures, Noah has to take care of a little girl obsessed with celebrity culture (Landry Bender), her overmedicated, obviously gay brother (Max Records) and their adopted sibling (Kevin Hernandez) — an abrasive South American kid with a penchant for blowing shit up — the same night Noah has a chance to bang an otherwise disinterested girl he likes (Ari Graynor). All he has to do is buy her some cocaine and come to this party. Because there otherwise wouldn't be a movie, he brings the kids to buy some blow from a lunatic drug dealer (Sam Rockwell) and all sorts of ribald hijinx ensue along the way.
Don't let the drugs and swearing fool you — Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka clearly wrote The Sitter while reading from a copy of Save the Cat! or some other bullshit screenwriting book that lays out every scripting rule in order to properly sell your spec script to a studio. These kinds of stories are built, not written, and a result the film's plotting is so contrived and strategized that it feels more like someone putting together a Lego fortress as opposed to telling a story. Which means that every story element is mathematically inserted into the film as opposed to organic, and every scene has an economy that's completely counterintuitive to these kinds of movies where the meat of the film is the magic that happens when characters just hang out and actors riff.
There are some interesting thematic elements to The Sitter within all that formula. The film's all about how people with one-sided relationships — Noah's supposed girlfriend is totally using him, his dad wants nothing to do with him, obviously gay brother has feelings for another kid that he doesn't understand, explosives-obsessed kid has gone through a few foster families and even Sam Rockwell's crazy dealer character is kinda needy considering how often he talks about having a best friend totem pole. But I can't really say that it adds depth to The Sitter outside of driving plot and Noah's character arc. Which probably should spark an entire tangent on the relationship between plot and theme and which should take precedence, but in the context of this film there's also this ongoing motif (for lack of a better term) where Noah runs into vital characters who went to high school and college with him, but I suspect this is just the screenwriters' way of tidying up the script a little bit and making the events seem less "random."
Fortunately The Sitter also has personality on its side thanks to some great casting — not only Sam Rockwell and the kids, but also JB Smoove and Method Man in minor roles. Many of the film's jokes work pretty well, and I guarantee it's because of the actors riffing the best lines and not what's actually in the script. Jonah Hill is the big draw of the film, obviously, and he works within a variant of the dickish but lovable persona he's known for. People tend to complain that Hill and many of his ilk always "play the same characters" in every film, but I find that notion total crap — chances are you're watching this kind of movie for a laugh, not for Hill to stretch his acting muscles in a brave performance.
On the other side of the camera, Green and his longtime cinematographer Tim Orr help to make the film look a little better than the usual flat, brightly lit comedy, which is a good move since The Sitter takes place mostly at night. Mostly however, Green stays out of the film's way — this point he can probably make this kind of film in their sleep, and it shows.
Maybe it's time for Green to wake up and return to the kind of funny but serious-minded filmmaking that made him a director to watch. I'm sure Green's having a ball with these movies and his rightful success with Pineapple Express afforded him this kind of work, but quite frankly anybody could have directed this film. David Gordon Green needs to go back to making films that only he can make.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine (drawn by Eric Zawadzski) will debut in Spring 2012.