While I would never claim that “The Sitter” was the worst film I saw in 2011, I think it is the film that most bitterly disappointed me this year. I’ve written at length about the work of Jonah Hill, as well as director David Gordon Green, and I consider the production company Rough House to be one of the most interesting working in comedy today. Perhaps because of the regard I have for their collective work, I am baffled by how completely I disliked “The Sitter,” and I find myself unable to work up the spleen that normally goes into a really strongly negative review. More than anything, I just feel deflated by the whole thing.
More than anything, I’m puzzled by the movie. Keep in mind, I liked the last two comedies that David Gordon Green directed, “Your Highness” and “Pineapple Express.” I am willing to acknowledge that “Your Highness” is deranged, one of the strangest mainstream films I’ve ever seen, but I like that it has such a strong sense of itself and it’s so willing to try anything. If you’re part of the 99.9% of all audiences who seemed to despise “Your Highness” completely, then I would advise you don’t even attempt to see “The Sitter,” because it doesn’t even have the ragged, whacked out personality that made that film interesting.
One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed the movies that Rough House has put out so far, or that have been made by the team behind Rough House, is because they avoid formula and seem to be focused on exploring the darker corners of human behavior as a source of comedy. For example, there’s no comedy event I am more excited about in 2012 than the third season of HBO’s “Eastbound and Down.” I need to see what happens to Kenny Powers this year. His quest so far has been absolutely bizarre, and wonderful in the way it has done nothing that I expected. For god’s sake, this is a series where an entire season builds up to one man mutilating another man with a baseball and it’s treated as a triumphant emotional payoff. I love “Observe and Report” because it’s like watching a comedy made by someone who thought “Taxi Driver” was good but not quite funny enough.
“The Sitter,” though, is shackled by formula, and no matter how much the film tries to subvert formula through certain decisions, it still ends up bowing to convention in the end, and in ways that feel totally false to me. When I see a movie about a wildly irresponsible character played by Jonah Hill who ends up taking his three young charges with him for an evening of drugs, dealers, car theft, gunfights, and dirty sex, I don’t want that film to end with hugs and lessons learned and everything getting that magical Hollywood reset to zero that always happens. I want to see the version of the film that no one else would make, the genuinely dangerous and even upsetting version of the film. I want to sit in that theater shocked that any corporation would accidentally allow this to sneak by. Instead, “The Sitter” plays it safe at every turn, and the result is a film with no pulse at all, sedate when it should be strange, defanged when it should be dangerous.
It would be tempting to heap all the blame on Brian Gatewood & Alessandro Tanaka, who are credited with the screenplay, and I have no doubt there will fans of Green’s who tie themselves in knots trying to avoid giving him any blame for this movie, but he’s still the director. He and Hill represent a power block on the film that I would imagine easily had more power than the screenwriters, and if they had decided to make major changes, I’m sure there’s nothing the writers could have done about it. For me, the disappointments start with the way the film is put together. When you’ve got frequent collaborators like cinematographer Tim Orr, editor Craig Alpert, or composer David Wingo turning in work that is this indifferent, this perfunctory, all I can assume is that the entire film, top down, just wasn’t working. I am almost shocked at how little style or polish there is to this thing. At 81 minutes and 12 seconds (the press notes are unusually specific about the running time), the film still feels long because so little of interest happens. I find that the only time I’m really bored in a film is when there’s nothing honest or alive happening onscreen. As long as there’s something happening, something that feels like the people making it were really engaged, I’ll sit through almost anything. Here, I have trouble believing they were unaware of just how flat all the material was while shooting, and there’s this falseness that just keeps me from ever really being able to settle in and enjoy.
Jonah Hill stars as Noah, a young man who failed out of college and who finds himself stuck in life, doing nothing. He’s hung up on Marisa (Ari Graynor), a girl who treats him terribly, and he’s living at home with his mom (Jessica Hecht), the two of them bonded by their dislike of Noah’s dad (Bruce Altman). In order to allow his mom one night out at a party, he agrees to substitute for the sick babysitter of the Pedullas, and he finds himself left alone with Slater (Max Records), Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), and Blithe (Landry Bender). When Marisa calls to ask him to come to a party to have sex with her and stop to buy some cocaine on the way, Noah readily agrees, and he takes the kids out in their parents’ stolen mini-van for a series of very bad decisions. Throw in Sam Rockwell as a drug dealer with a strange hang-up about ranking his friends and a marked fondness for near-naked bodybuilders, and you’ve got the recipe for… well, inertia, actually.
I love movies where characters make terrible choices that lead them through a night of near-death and madness. “After Hours,” “Risky Business,” “Something Wild,” “Into The Night”… these are movies I adore because of that feeling of a world that we rarely glimpse that suddenly washes over these unsuspecting characters. But in order for a film like this to work, there has to be some control over tone, and I have to be able to at least empathize with the characters I’m watching. That’s not possible here because they really haven’t written anything for Jonah to play. I think he’s one of those guys whose comic timing is so sharp that you can give him almost any line and he can find the funny in it. Here, that ability is tested more sorely than ever before. I don’t feel like the writers had a real handle on Noah beyond a few tired traits that never really pay off, and they left all of the hard work for Hill to do. When you create a character this clueless and unlikeable, you can’t have him turn around and magically solve the life problems of each of the three kids in one scene for each of them, and I don’t buy the nice neat little bows they want to tie on each of the storylines. If they’d really had the nerve to explore the idea of being a young teenager who realizes he’s gay or a kid from another culture who can’t shake off the horrors of his homeland or a little girl dealing with the hypersexualized culture that is everywhere, those could all be interesting story threads. Instead, each one is written off quickly, the same way Noah’s issues with his own father are thrown away after one potentially interesting moment. There’s a real film lurking at the edges of this one, which only makes it more irritating.
I think the way J.B. Smoove and Sam Rockwell’s bad-guy characters are written is painful, and Rockwell in particular has this strange desperation in his eyes during his scenes, like he knows this is a case where he can’t just crank up his freakshow charisma and let things work themselves out. Smoove is a different problem, because as much as I like his work on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” he doesn’t seem to have any range at all. There’s no real difference between his work here and his work in “We Bought A Zoo,” except for context, and the context here is really painful and unfunny. I also find the entire inner-city thugs storyline to be oddly off-target and even a little racially uncomfortable, and sitting in a theater watching something by people I respect that is this tin-eared is a profoundly difficult experience.
In the end, it’s a film that deserves a quick and quiet death, and I suspect it will accomplish that this weekend. Green’s next film is his “Suspiria” remake, meaning that, at least for the moment, this is the end of his big mainstream comedy moment, and Hill is in the midst of a fairly major career overhaul as well. “The Sitter” will ultimately just be a footnote in both of their careers, one of those “Wait, they made that?” moments, so that’s good. It’s just unfortunate that they hit this particular rock bottom before moving on.
“The Sitter” opens in theaters tomorrow.