Filmmaker David Gordon Green continues his strange journey through ’80s cinematic iterations with The Sitter, which resurrects the babysitting comedy form most famously portrayed in the minor classic Adventures in Babysitting. And if it’s still not entirely clear why the once-respected indie auteur has devoted such energy to painstakingly mainstream work, at least The Sitter is a tolerably mediocre trifle, not an abomination on par with Your Highness, Green’s other comedy from earlier this year.

Jonah Hill, sporting his since-shed heft for the final time, stars as aimless college dropout Noah Griffith. Convoluted circumstances find him at the home of his mom’s friends the Pedullas, babysitting their three nightmare children. Eldest son Slater (Max Records) is a cauldron of anxieties, daughter Blithe (Landry Bender) is an aspiring celebutard, and the recently adopted Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez) loves destroying things. When Noah’s manipulative love interest Marisa (Ari Graynor) promises sex in exchange for a cocaine delivery, he packs the kids in the minivan and a surreal road trip through Brooklyn begins.

The screenplay by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka commences at a funny, fast clip, cycling through an array of plot developments. Green keeps you engaged in the darker side of the Brooklyn journey’s earliest stages, which includes exploding toilets and a trip to a gay bathhouse/gym/drug-dealing compound. For awhile, at least, there’s genuine interest in the next weird step.

Hill, back in the manic comic mode that’s his forte after his strong dramatic work in Moneyball, establishes an amusingly frazzled interplay with his three gifted young co-stars. He’s at once hopelessly overwhelmed and fatherly toward them, stuck in impossible situations but always ready to dole out a helpful bit of advice. At the same time, each child’s single defining personality trait is sharply realized. Records makes a convincing mini-Woody Allen, Bender delivers her adult-minded dialogue with endless spitfire enthusiasm, and there’s a certain mystery to the way Hernandez lurks around the edges of the frame.

The whole shebang hums smoothly for about the movie’s first half, but it runs out of steam. The plot gets increasingly more convoluted, with less of an emphasis on genuinely creative, outlandish touches. Simultaneously, the transitions between the plot-driven set pieces and the accompanying character-driven moments grow steadily more awkward and abrupt. The overarching thinness of the entire enterprise comes into stark relief as plot details are tossed aside, the one-dimensional stereotype-centered humor takes hold, and the movie more or less avoids a climax entirely.

In the end, the premise isn’t fresh enough to sustain 81 minutes and the movie doesn’t have the wall-to-wall, propulsive energy of a great farcical enterprise. Green stops pushing buttons and settles for the mundane when the movie demands the offbeat and the dark.

Put another way, it’s never a good sign when a movie’s most notable, unique feat is wasting co-star Sam Rockwell.

The Upside: Jonah Hill and the kids are funny.

The Downside: The plot is pretty thin gruel that’s barely sustained over a slim 81 minutes.

On the Side: David Gordon Green should be admired for making the movies he wants, no matter what people think, but it’s hard not to wish he’d get back to more serious stuff. He’s certainly got the chops for it.

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