"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
In "The Sitter," a still heavy-set Jonah Hill plays a college student on suspension, a perpetual ball of screwups without aim or scruples. Then he volunteers to go babysitting for a night — an act of self-sacrifice, actually, to help his painfully single mother get to mingle at a party — and his life turns partially around. Along the way, there are laughs. This is the sort of template that bad movies have relied on for eons, and indeed, "The Sitter" sets its stakes low enough that it's only going to top out at "not half bad" in most estimations. Let us be generous and say, then, that it is not half bad. David Gordon Green, the Little Rock-born director, doesn't reach the heights of his 2008 stoner-canon "Pineapple Express," but he does manage something here better than the typical group-date movie for 16-year-olds, which is, truth be told, the ground "The Sitter" claims.
Strongly in the defense of "The Sitter," none of the three child actors is loathsome. The eldest, played by Max Records (of "Where the Wild Things Are" fame), is a dour neatnik partial to v-necked pullovers and the bonanza of pills he keeps in a fanny pack to control his anxiety attacks. His younger sister, played by Landry Bender, is going through a "celebutante" phase, which excuses her working-girl cosmetics schemes and her insistence on slinging Paris Hilton-grade hip-hop lingo. For someone whose life's dream is to be famous and be invited to parties, she is surprisingly tolerable. Then there's the adopted Central American firebug, played by Kevin Hernandez, who enjoys smashing things, introducing small explosives to plumbing and disappearing at inopportune times. His penchant for petty theft also leads to his snatching of a critical MacGuffin that allows the film to sic an enjoyably unhinged Sam Rockwell and cronie J.B. Smoove after Noah.
Thus our hero is set upon the sort of character-building course — saving his own hide, upholding his ever-higher standards of what a babysitter ought to do — that comedy is made of. Enjoying "The Sitter" requires that you forget anything you might think you know about New York City geography, and to accept that sometimes logic simply can't be invited to the ends of movies. But outside of its mishmashed plot, the "Sitter" completes its emotional arcs convincingly, which in a movie about One Crazy Night is often the true feat, as "Adventures in Babysitting" could tell you.
A word, then, about Hill, without whom "The Sitter" would be a dog's breakfast. He's maybe the most unlikely leading man working in films today — obese, slackfaced, moptopped — but he displays a surprising bit of range in "The Sitter," working from the same vulnerable crassness that made his vulgarity-spewing secret bromance with Michael Cera in "Superbad" the most memorable aspect of that slacker-teen classic. Like fellow Judd Apatow disciple Seth Rogen, Hill can reach into a wellspring of honesty on multiple fronts. He appears to honestly not care. Then he appears to honestly want to cause verbal harm to those around him. Then he appears to honestly ache when he's wounded.
Even while the film orbiting around him is this hostile to realism, you root for his character and you root for the actor. Maybe it's that both he and Rogen are, to be charitable, nontraditional stars, but somehow they're able to combine tenderness and crassness with uncommon success. With any luck his turn earlier this year in "Moneyball" gave a glimpse of a future when Hill's talents do more than merely prop up B babysitting comedies.