Jonah Hill ranks somewhere between Christopher Walken and Gary Busey on the list of Hollywood character actors you might trust to spend an evening watching your kids. That in itself is a recipe for laughs “The Sitter” handily exploits, but in all other respects, this ostensibly wild-and-crazy romp plays things too close to the book to feel genuinely wild or crazy — unless, of course, the auds are underage themselves, which seems to be the target director David Gordon Green had in mind when baking this bemusingly inappropriate R-rated laffer. As seasonal counterprogramming, “The Sitter” stands to score some easy money.
A college dropout who’s moved back in with Mom, reluctant babysitter Noah (Hill) never discusses his fee for minding a trio of New York brats, but whatever they’re paying him ain’t nearly enough. Where other little girls read Golden Books, 9-year-old Blithe (Landry Bender) peruses Page Six, aspiring to be a trashy celebutante when she grows up. Her 13-year-old brother, Slater (“Where the Wild Things Are’s” Max Records), may seem aloof, but is in fact so heavily medicated, he can barely muster the energy to flip his Justin Bieber-style bangs, much less cope with his latent homosexuality. Renegade adopted sibling Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez, awfully young to be playing such a crass Latino stereotype) more than compensates for Slater’s apathy, planting cherry bombs in toilets and urinating in the most inappropriate places.
Sound hilarious? Noah doesn’t think so, which is why the schlubby loser decides that instead of staying indoors, he’ll drag the kids along for a night of drug deals, gang fights and party crashing, because nothing says funny like a babysitter covered in cocaine at the wheel of a minivan. Unlikely as it may seem given the poignant character dramas that launched his career, Green actually seems more comfortable orchestrating this kind of manufactured outrageousness. And though the pic shares the same anarchic spirit as Green’s two previous forays into lowbrow comedy, “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness,” this latest outing most clearly demonstrates his affection for such ’80s-era celebrations of irresponsibility run amok as “Risky Business” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
On those terms, “The Sitter” makes an adequate companion, though it’s hardly the sort of film to inspire similar homages in 20 years’ time. First-time screenwriters Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka put Noah and his young charges through a gantlet of familiar obstacles, building most of the punchlines around how out of place three rich kids are, say, robbing a jewelry store or rescuing Noah from a smackdown. Woven throughout are obligatory emotional moments, in which Noah finds time to counsel each of the children on how to cope with their various conditions, while sorting out unresolved relationship business with his father (Bruce Altman) and girlfriend (Ari Graynor).
That’s a lot of ground to cover in 81 minutes, which is perhaps “The Sitter’s” saving grace, as editor Craig Alpert keeps things brisk enough that the pic never overstays its welcome. Pair that with a handful of genuinely unique flourishes, such as the zany warehouse space where scantily clad bodybuilders help a bipolar Karl (Sam Rockwell) run his narcotics operation, and the film delivers in terms of laughs.
With additional zingers looped into the tail end of scenes, the pic feels tighter than most contempo comedies, even if the premise is as slender as they come. From “Kindergarten Cop” to “The Pacifier,” most wrong-person-for-the-job child-care movies are aimed squarely at kids, and the humor here manages to be every bit as juvenile, even as it qualifies as too raunchy for a PG rating — apparent from the opening oral-sex scene.
Material like this hardly seems the best use of Hill’s talents, and yet, he comes off as enough of a softie here to sustain a losing tug-of-war with three pre-pubescent hellions, which is precisely what the role demands. Among the kids, Bender steals the show, playing against her adorable child-model looks at every turn, while Records tackles a part that uses the actor’s odd oncamera stiffness to its advantage.