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

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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.

As studios have funneled an ever-increasing number of R-rated comedies into movies theaters, they’ve found two ways to distinguish themselves: make them better or make them dirtier. Bridesmaids has some terrifically off-color scenes—a dress fitting that gets interrupted by a bout of food poisoning is particularly memorable—but it’s also a smart, legitimately affecting depiction of adult female relationships. By contrast, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas goes for dirtier; with a cocaine-snorting baby, a slow-motion 3D ejaculation, and a painfully raunchy variation on A Christmas Story’s famous “tongue frozen to flagpole” scene, it succeeds.

The Sitter certainly doesn’t qualify as “better.” Even ignoring the obvious Adventures in Babysitting connection, it's a failed attempt to replicate the successes of older, better R-rated comedies. The Sitter’s marketing campaign borrows heavily from the much-better Knocked Up; where Knocked Up’s iconic poster asked “What if this guy got you pregnant?” under a picture of Seth Rogen, The Sitter’s poster asks, “Need a sitter?” with a picture of a vacant-looking Jonah Hill. And Hill is essentially playing an older version of his character from 2007’s terrific Superbad; if you changed his character’s name from Noah to Evan, this could easily pass as a semi-sequel, though not a particularly good one.

And as for “dirtier?” The Sitter certainly isn’t family-friendly, but it’s also strangely toothless, with all of its potential sharpness muted over the course of its increasingly treacly story. Like its “red band” trailer, The Sitter opens with an awkwardly candid discussion of oral sex between Noah and his girlfriend, who assures him that “nice guys eat the best pussy.” But after the kids are introduced, The Sitter becomes gentler, and consequently a lot less funny. By The Sitter’s end, Noah has taken a predictable hero’s journey and grown into responsible adulthood: He courts a new, entirely superfluous love interest, confronts his own deadbeat dad, and manages to teach an important life lesson to all three of his individual charges over the course of the evening. If you take out all the “fucks,” this is a straightforward, even quaintly conventional Hollywood comedy.

But straightforward and conventional aren’t enough in the midst of this R-rated comedy renaissance. As the R-rated comedy schism continues to divide between Judd Apatow-style narrative depth (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Bridesmaids) and Todd Phillips-style envelope-pushing (The Hangover, Due Date, The Hangover Part II), The Sitter falls somewhere in the gap. It may not be terrible, but it is forgettable, and when it comes to comedy that’s just as great a sin.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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