Saturday 16 January 2010

Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead (1991)

Director: Stephen Herek
Star: Christina Applegate
In 1991 Christina Applegate was twenty years old and awesomely hot. She was also instantly recognisable by a massive audience because the highly successful sitcom Married with Children had reached its fifth season. So it made sense for her to aim at Hollywood. Her first attempt was serious, with the prostitute/serial killer cop drama Streets in 1990, but it didn't do too well, so she changed tack to this family comedy which I remember as something of a guilty pleasure. What I found revisiting it in 2010 was that two thirds of it is actually a pretty decent comedy, but the filmmakers then gave up trying to keep the whole thing wrapped up properly and it falls apart rapidly and with wild uncaring abandon.

Applegate is Sue Ellen Crandall, seventeen years old and freshly graduated from high school. She's facing a long summer with her brothers and sisters because everyone else she knows is leaving the country: all her friends are going to Europe without her and even Mom is flying out to Australia for two months because she's had a rough 37 years and needs a break. So it's five Crandall kids and a babysitter, which Mom sics on them at the last minute. As she tells Sue Ellen, she's not capable of running the show while she's gone. She's not an adult yet. This statement, half patronising grown up speak and half truth that kids don't understand because they're young enough to still know everything, is really the whole point of the film.

The kids are a generic bunch. In descending order of age, Kenny is the stoner dude, Zach is the underage womaniser, Melissa is the tomboy and Walter is the little kid who hasn't really defined who he is yet, but hey, he's cute. Maybe he's the couch potato and trivia buff. The babysitter is Mrs Sturak, a sweet old lady who wouldn't say boo to a goose, at least until Mom leaves, of course. Then she turns into the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, or at least as close as you can get to that in a PG-13 comedy. And so the war begins, with nametags, daily chore assignments, girls clothes for Melissa, nothing remotely compatible with a couple of months of freedom. Even Elvis the dog hates her after the personality switch. The war doesn't last long though because Mrs Sturak promptly dies in her sleep on the first night, perhaps after being scared witless by the condition of Kenny's room.

So opportunity knocks and the kids happily let it in. They don't ring an ambulance because they know she's dead. They don't ring the cops because they'd call mom and she'd come home and the summer would be over before it began. So they take the only other option they see: to dump her at the front door of the Groman Eden Mortuary in a trunk with a note on the front reading, 'Nice old lady inside. Died of natural causes.' The catch is that all the money Mom left to last them through the summer was with her in the trunk because they didn't think to check, so now being broke is a huge deal and if they want the freedom of two months on their own they have to earn it. One flip of a pizza box later and Sue Ellen finds herself putting on a happy face to work at a Clown Dog fast food joint and beginning on the real path to growing up.

The story is well written within the bounds it has to work with, but it's really nothing new in the slightest. What it does is combine what seems like all the various comedic plotlines that each new generation re-learns through new material into one film and makes a pretty good stab at being the new reference point for a new generation. The direction is capable and the acting is solid. The casting is excellent, meaning that while the actors playing Sue Ellen and Bryan, the boyfriend she finds at the Clown Dog, play well off each other, the male half of the audience tries to work out how they can land Christina Applegate if Josh Charles can do it while hindered by a Clown Dog uniform.

There's the right place, right time story. Sue Ellen quits fast food after one day and unexpectedly lands a job in the fashion industry by virtue of copying a sparkling resume out of a book, adding even more things that she's never done in places she's never been, and lucks out big time. Applying for a receptionist position, she ends up becoming Executive Administrative Assistant to Rose, the Senior Vice President of Operations, at GAW or General Apparel West. The job is supposed to go to Carolyn, the current receptionist thus freeing up her spot, but Rose hates Carolyn so sneaks Sue Ellen in ahead of her. That means $37,500 a year plus benefits and full responsibility over the petty cash.

There's the fish out of water, grow up quick story. Obviously Sue Ellen has no idea what she's supposed to do ('You're going to choke!' says Kenny), but she has to live up to her resume. Luckily she meets Kathy, who applied for but didn't get the job because she was underqualified. Apparently the fact that she can do the QED Report in a flash along with anything else Rose piles onto Sue Ellen's desk doesn't mean she can win out over a receptionist that the boss hates. What a bizarre corporate structure. Sue Ellen still learns plenty, but it's less about being an Executive Administrative Assistant and more about being a hot young lady in an adult world. Rose's boyfriend Gus is a scary wolf, for a start. He stoops a little as if his ego and sex drive are too big for his body and are trying to burst out of him, and he latches onto the new girl in town with a vengeance.

There's the unfortunate circumstance story. Bryan seems perfect for her but of course he turns out to be Carolyn's younger brother, so now she has to lie and hide and you know how that sort of thing helps a budding relationship. 'I'd respect your privacy if you weren't so secretive,' says Bryan 'Well I'd tell you more if you didn't want to know so much,' retorts Sue Ellen. What's more the unfortunate circumstance story becomes the everything possible goes wrong story. Liza Minnelli and a couple of other drag queens steal Mrs Sturak's vintage Buick. The kids steal all the petty cash to go on a shopping spree, picking up an entertainment centre and a diamond ring for Zach's girl Cynthia, and whatever else they can think of. Walter breaks his leg by climbing onto the roof to fix the TV antenna.

You can tell how subtle this becomes by listening to the fax machine eating Sue Allen's fax for New York. Then again this was playing at MADCAP as the first half of a double bill with Problem Child 2 and compared to that this is as elegantly subtle as an Yasujiro Ozu movie. The screenwriters had fun thus far building up a mass of opportunities for the picture but as if they're tightrope walkers with just not enough experience to make it all the way across, everything they've set up promptly comes crashing down. Two thirds of the way in when the schoolboard don't go for the new GAW designs, the internal consistency collapses under its own weight and the story spins out of control.

The company is going to die because one contract at a subsidiary office doesn't work out. But no! The fresh high school graduate can save it because she can accessorise. How's that for a life lesson? Kenny can learn to cook in a week by watching Julia Child on TV and that turns his life around. The Crandall kids and their unreliable friends like Lizard and Hellhound can give the house and grounds a total makeover and run an professional event on the fly. Ice sculpture? Sure. Professional lighting and sound? No worries. Catering a major event out of one oven? No problem. Even the little details get ignored and suddenly we start noticing, so Sue Ellen drives home in gridlock even though she pulled an all nighter. Magically all Sue Ellen's friends are back from Europe just in time to waltz in and become supermodels. Really we don't care any more.

The worst thing about the film though has to be the soundtrack, its failings highlighted by the inclusion of that song Spinal Tap did in the sixties with Ed Begley Jr on drums. It plays like it was selected by a computer not a person, a computer from 1991 no less like Sue Ellen's that runs Wordstar and Lotus, by analysing word use in the script and then picking a popular song that has similar words in the lyrics. This scene has words like 'need' and 'broke' and 'petty cash', so let's search the database for a song that's all about money. How about Gimme Some Money by Spinal Tap? Ugh. We even get I Only Have Eyes for You twice, so the soundtrack isn't just clichéd and unimaginative but repetitive too. The film is much better than the soundtrack but it should have been even better yet. People who were kids in 1991 could have remembered it the way kids only a few years older remember John Hughes movies like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Buehller's Day Off. The success of the film can be gauged by the fact that they don't.

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