David Gordon Green has certainly had one of the more peculiar career trajectories of any young director, starting out with grimly effective dramas like George Washington and Snow Angels, before unleashing his uniquely caustic brand of comedy with the uneven Pineapple Express, and finally opting for the more conventional – not to mention hugely disappointing – fantasy jaunt Your Highness. His latest, The Sitter, though passable enough and mercifully short, never seems sure quite what it wants to be, and the jarring tonal shifts ensure it fails to sufficiently satisfy as either a rambunctious comedy or a nuanced character study.
It does at least get to the point quickly; Noah (Jonah Hill) is a suspended college student who, to ensure his mother can go out on her first date in years, babysits the neighbours’ three kids. They are equivocally an odd bunch – there’s the self-indulgent, angsty teenage boy Slater (Max Records), the precocious, TV-obsessed “celebutante” Blithe (Landry Bender), and the oddball they adopted from El Salvador, Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez). When a girl Noah has been pining for, Marisa (Ari Graynor), invites him to a party with the promise of sex, he ventures out with the kids in tow to reap his reward, but first, he needs to find some cocaine to bring her, and that’s when it all goes awry.
Much like the recent dark comedy Young Adult, Green’s film dares to present us with an extremely unlikeable protagonist, who is selfish, rude, and more than a little bit creepy. The difference here is that The Sitter then tries to make you sympathise with him, and while we might feel a tiny morsel due to the abuse these kids subject him to, the overall arc of his character comes off as rather forced and even quite unnecessary. If anything, Reitman’s film proved you don’t need to generate hackneyed emotional responses to your characters if the writing is true enough. However, when you’re dealing with a concept as overdone as this – and history dictates that it hasn’t ever really been done well, taking Mr. Nanny and The Pacifer as key exhibits – a more acerbic tone is not really enough to differentiate it.
One would be foolish to expect taste from Green at this point, though The Sitter plays even more fast and loose with that mode than his previous films. An early moment in which Noah refers to Blithe as JonBenét Ramsey has already garnered controversy state-side, while it isn’t long before the scatological jokes show up. Mix this with a concertina of goofy capers one after another, and the whole affair feels curiously limp, amusing largely because of Hill’s incredulous turn and Landry Bender’s admittedly effective brattiness. Even Sam Rockwell’s appearance as the crazed villain can’t spruce things up sufficiently; it’s keen instead to walk the much-travelled line, distinguished only by its darker elements, which are not enough to paper over the many narrative cracks.
It gets more offensively annoying in the second half when we’re asked to root for Noah once a romantic interest abounds, while the emotional woes of the children only bog a film down that, at 81 minutes long, should move quickly. One mid-film confrontation between Noah and his father, who left the family years ago and has set up shop with a new family, is the only emotional exchange that really feels genuine. After this, the film doesn’t seem to have anywhere interesting to go; it just defaults to endless confrontations with people who don’t like the protagonist very much. The main throw-down doesn’t even make much sense, with Noah earning the respect of some gangsters by allowing them to hit him in the face. It feels ultimately quite strained before finally arriving at a schmaltzy ending in which everyone learns something and our “hero” is somehow redeemed. In terms of its arc, the film comes off as extremely self-conscious and aggressively overzealous.
The Sitter is ultimately contented to deliver predictable plot beats with a few hilarious moments, but plenty more which don’t really hit the mark. This is yet another David Gordon Green comedy that fails to tap into its dark, noirish potential.
The Sitter is out now in UK Cinemas.