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Movie Review: Unfunny, Labored THE SITTER Embarrasses the R-Rated Comedy Genre

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The slobby, listless comedy The Sitter offers the strongest proof yet that director David Gordon Green needs to transition back into the kind of moody, heartfelt dramas with which he began his career (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow).  His new phase as an Apatow protégé has had its moments—James Franco’s blissfully stoned-out Pineapple Express hero, the insanely detailed fantasy world of Your Highness, or anything with Kenny Powers in “Eastbound and Down”—but he’s drifting into aimless drivel, and The Sitter bears that fact out stronger than any of his previous larks.

It’s an R-rated version of Adventures in Babysitting.  That’s all; no more.  Whatever creative potential the premise holds—there is inherent drama in sending three pre-teens into the Big, Bad City, especially if liberated from the confines of a PG-rating—quickly melts away, as Green is far too content to rehash that earlier film with pre-weight-loss Jonah Hill in the Elizabeth Shue part.

If you don’t know the story, I’ll spin it for you quick.  Hill wants to party with his horrible girlfriend (an unfunny, gratingly obnoxious performance by the otherwise talented Ari Graynor) in Brooklyn despite having to watch over three privileged young siblings (Max Records, Landry Bender, and Kevin Hernandez), so he loads the kids into the family minivan, heads downtown, and ends up facing very real peril.  Other than a few wrinkles—Graynor’s “love interest” is a self-obsessed cokehead, and each of the kids gets exactly one contemporary quirk (Records is a closeted gay kid, Bender fancies herself a Kardashian-esque socialite, and Hernandez loves to blow up toilets)—there’s nothing here that won’t be acceptable for all audiences once the family-friendly edit hits Comedy Central.

That last issue touches on the film’s biggest problem: the actual joke ratio is depressingly low.  Green and Co. seem to think that having Hill constantly tell these tweeners to go f—k themselves is funny in and of itself, so they don’t really bother with, y’know, witty repartee or humorous characterizations.  I noticed this problem first creep in during Your Highness—too much comedy emphasis fell on the incongruity of having Danny McBride’s British prince-by-way-of-a-South-Carolina-Hooters say f—k in a Krull or Labyrinth flavored fantasy setting—but at least Your Highness had enough visual sight gags and quirky characters to balance out the uninspired profanity.  In The Sitter, once you realize how closely Green is following Adventures in Babysitting‘s template, the swearing becomes the joke.

I’d say Hill deserved better than this, but he acts as if The Sitter is his Nutty Professor; Green lets him vamp through the proceedings with impunity, turning the picture into a disastrously ill-conceived vanity project.  Hill exhibits supernatural sexual prowess with Graynor, gets to romance Kylie Bunbury’s even more lovely astrology buff, and then—in The Sitter‘s comic/racial low-point—waltzes into an African-American bar and successfully intimidates the entire room (as the racist cherry on top, he lays down some “jive” to ingratiate himself—we’re a long way from Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in Silver Streak, people).

Plus, since Hill is now AN ACADEMY AWARD-NOMINEE, we have to sit through twenty minutes at the midpoint where The Sitter stops even trying to be funny so that Hill can emote (telling off his absentee father, helping each kid resolve their issues.  You know, comedy gold!).  For someone who so deftly handled comedy and drama in Superbad, Hill’s ego may have consumed his talent.  Let’s hope it’s only temporary.

The Sitter doesn’t work, yet it has one (very) bright spot.  As a dangerously unstable drug dealer, Sam Rockwell gives the movie what little spark it has.  Rockwell and Green first worked together on 2007’s Snow Angels, and Rockwell gave one of the least heralded great performances of the past decade, playing a former criminal and all-around screw-up who turns to Jesus as a last-ditch effort to clean up his act.  His work here is nowhere near as revelatory, but at least Rockwell understands how dire the film around him is, and he works overtime to compensate.

His Karl (“With a ‘K’ ”) operates out of a lair that’s equal parts Pumping Iron and Alfred Molina’s apartment from Boogie Nights, and he approaches every human interaction with the same manic unpredictability.  Karl has an unsettling propensity for demanding human affection—no matter how pissed he grows at Hill, he can’t stop himself from giving him bearhugs and exclaiming that Hill is his “eighth best friend in the whole wide world”—but that love can turn on a dime; after Rockwell tells Hill that he’s renovating his building for more space, Hill tells him that more elbow room is good, and Rockwell goes dead-eyed and asks, “What’s good about that?”

This choices Rockwell makes could overwhelm most performers—here’s a guy who has a roller-blading manservant and favors packaging cocaine in actual dinosaur eggs—but they end up making him both funnier and legitimately menacing. For the fifteen-or-so minutes Rockwell is on-screen, he owns the material, and there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.  An edgy comedy about a ‘roided-out dope dealer who has to care for three young children?  I wouldn’t mind checking that movie out.

Too bad we got The Sitter instead.

The Sitter looks fine on Blu-ray, with an appropriately grimy HD transfer and an aggressive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.  Supplements are (mostly) underwhelming.  We get an extended cut (running seven minutes longer), a half-hour of additional deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes feature, two faux-goofy featurettes (“For Your Consideration” and “Jonah the Producer”), and two gag reels that are funnier than anything in the final cut.  If it were a better movie, I’d be more upset over the bonuses.  But it’s not, so I’m not.

The set also comes with DVD and Digital Copies.

Other than Sam Rockwell’s inspired villain, The Sitter is far too content to coast along on a stream of profanity.  Hopefully, David Gordon Green takes this one as a wakeup call; it’s time for him to start taking movies seriously again.

The Sitter is available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.