In critics' shorthand, “The Sitter” can be quickly described as “After Hours” meets “Adventures in Babysitting.” This mashup of elements from Martin Scorsese's edgy 1985 gambol through Manhattan's midnight underbelly and Chris Columbus' larky 1987 kids and teens escapade adds up to an R-rated comedy that's an uncomfortable blending of rough and cuddly.
As a star vehicle for Jonah Hill (“Superbad”), a schlubby Everyman whose comic lineage runs from Fatty Arbuckle through John Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley, this shambling comedy offers up an escalating series of absurd, ill-considered situations that get more bizarre, convoluted and implausible as the night rolls on.
The farcical, far-fetched story by first-time scripters Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka casts Hill as a likable, wiseacre slacker named Noah Griffin, who has been kicked out of college and lives at home with his desperate-to-date single mom (Jessica Hecht). To facilitate his mother's big night out, Noah reluctantly agrees to baby-sit the kids next door and finds himself in charge of an adolescent trio of dysfunctional little terrors.
There's the jittery Slater (Max Records of “Where the Wild Things Are”), a pill-popping neurotic with serious issues about his budding sexuality; tart little sister Blithe (precocious newcomer Landry Bender), a foul-mouthed, mascaraed, pint-size party girl; and adopted brother Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), a surly little sociopath with a penchant for dropping cherry bombs down toilets.
As the sitter and his unruly charges settle in for an uneasy evening of TV watching, Noah gets a call from his supposed “girlfriend,” the manipulative diva Marisa (Ari Graynor) urging him to join her at a hip downtown party — oh, and to pick up some nose candy along the way.
So Noah decides it's a good idea to load his three charges into their dad's pristine minivan and head out into the night to score some drugs.
It's a dubious decision that not surprisingly deteriorates into a visit to the surreal den of a gun-slinging drug dealer (Sam Rockwell); the accidental purloining of a large cocaine stash; the crashing of a bat mitzvah to steal some cash; the quick burglary of a jewelry store; a dicey visit to an after-hours gangbangers' club; and several other nightmarish, night-on-the-town misadventures.
Director David Gordon Green, who has graduated from the subtle, indie promise of “George Washington” and “Undertow” to the raunchy comedy of “Pineapple Express,” TV's “Eastbound & Down” and this, pushes the weird, episodic story forward with high spirits but rough craft (and no concern for logic).
When things threaten to get too raunchy or ridiculous, he slows down to let Noah, with all his hard-won worldly wisdom, gently counsel each of the children with a mild, mushy, be-true-to-yourself speech — which the likable Hill pulls off with surprising aplomb.
There are some queasy laughs here and there and some strong performances from the good supporting cast. But mainly “The Sitter” is a showcase for Hill and his goofy, regular-Joe persona, and you might just find yourself pulling for the guy, despite the chaotic, lowdown script he's saddled with. Let's hope after this derivative, minimum-wage gig he moves on to better, and funnier, things.
— Dennis King
Starring: Jonah Hill, Max Records, Ari Graynor, Sam Rockwell.
(Crude and sexual humor, pervasive language, drug material and some violence)