'The Sitter': Lost Child of the R-Rated Comedy Renaissance

In a great year for raunchy, smartly funny flicks, Jonah Hill's latest will be forgotten

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20th Century Fox

Promotional materials for The Sitter, starring Jonah Hill, describe it as “a new level of twisted and debauched hilarity from the director of Pineapple Express.” But The Sitter is arriving in a year that has redefined what “twisted and debauched hilarity” means at the movie theater—and it suffers badly by comparison.

In the film, Hill plays Noah Griffith, a mercurial, irresponsible 20-something who reluctantly agrees to a one-night babysitting gig. When Noah gets an unexpected phone call from his wayward girlfriend, who promises that she’ll finally have sex with him if he brings her some cocaine, he rounds up the kids and drives his minivan into the dark underbelly of New York City. If any of that sounds familiar, that’s probably because it is; The Sitter is essentially a reimagining of '80s staple Adventures in Babysitting, with Jonah Hill stepping in as a less responsible, less attractive version of the character played by Elizabeth Shue. But The Sitter owes an even heavier debt to earlier entries in a genre that’s rapidly amassed critical praise—and box-office dollars—in recent years: the hard-R comedy.

When did the R-rated comedy renaissance begin? The most likely candidate is 2005. The three years before that had been hard on the genre. 2002’s two top-grossing R-rated films were dramas (8 Mile, Road to Perdition), and it isn’t until the 10th movie on the list of top-grossing R-rated films that year that we see a film that could even charitably be called a comedy, About Schmidt. The same is true for 2003 (top grossers: The Matrix Reloaded andTerminator 3, with the first comedy, American Wedding, at No. 6) and 2004 (The Passion of the Christ and Troy, with dramedy Sideways at No. 6 and the first actual comedy—Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason—at No. 15). But after years of R-rated adult dramas and prestige pictures dominating the box office, 2005's two highest-grossing R-rated films were raunchy summer comedies: Weddings Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

There are two ways for R-rated comedies to stand out now: Be better or dirtier. "The Sitter" does neither.

Studio executives, ever-vigilant for the latest box-office trends, sat up and took notice. From 2005 on, each year has seen a breakout hard-R comedy hit: 2006’s Borat (No. 2, behind Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award-winning The Departed), 2007’s Knocked Up (No. 2, behind300), 2008’s Sex and the City movie (No. 1), 2009’s The Hangover (No. 1), and last year’s Jackass 3-D (No. 3). This year’s sequel to the Hangover became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, with three other comedies (Bridesmaids, Horrible Bosses, and Bad Teacher) in the top five.

This past year has seen a bumper crop of R-rated comedies, with some very high highs (Bridesmaids) and some very low lows (the unfortunate nadir being Sitter director David Gordon Green’s previous film, Your Highness, which was released earlier this year). Many observers, including the Los Angeles Times, have remarked on the unexpectedly strong box-office takes of movies like Horrible Bosses and Bad Teacher this year. But if The Sitter is an indication of the genre’s direction heading into the future, the R-rated comedy bubble is poised to burst.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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