Adventures in Babysitting

November 16, 2011

There are many reasons to hate Chris Columbus. This is a guy whose first screenplay sale was a little thing called Gremlins, which was purchased and produced by none other than Steven Spielberg and which went on to make a mint.

He wrote a couple of other scripts under Spielberg’s wing, The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes, and was even tapped to write the next Indiana Jones movie.

Now he’s made his directing debut, which is what all those frustrated screenwriters want to do anyway. And he’s 27 years old. You see why he’s easy to hate?

The film that Columbus has directed at this disgustingly youthful age is called Adventures in Babysitting, and unfortunately the title is just about the best thing about the movie. Columbus didn’t write this one—a first-timer named David Simkins did—but it shares with Columbus’s earlier work a penchant for cute head-over-heels action.

It’s a kind of After Hours for teenagers. A perky 17-year-old high school student (Elisabeth Shue) takes a babysitting job in the suburbs when her boyfriend stands her up for the night. Her charges are a pint-sized little girl (Maia Brewton) and a 15-year-old guy (Keith Coogan). Well, the guy isn’t really under her care, but he’s got major crush on her, so he and his geeky friend (Anthony Rapp) hang around to make moon eyes at the babysitter.

The babysitting adventure really begins with a phone call from a pal stranded at the downtown Chicago bus station, begging for a ride home. Shue piles her three hell-raisers in mom’s car, and heads into town for a wild and semi-surreal night of catastrophes.

Some of these scrapes are gently amusing, yet most of the film’s situations are so heavily contrived that they undercut the fun. When Shue & Co. stumble into a smoky jazz club and are forced to improvise a blues number to earn their passage, it’s sort of funny. Funny, except that even with a generous suspension of disbelief, I can’t quite buy the concept of a blues club that lets a quartet of suburban squares on its stage, or that forces them to sing, badly, as an exit visa.

The movie has a string of these near-miss scenes. Columbus can’t quite find the rhythms or the look to kick this sitcom into high gear. For instance, his cast is likable, but they’re on a low flame. The acting honors go to people in smaller roles: Calvin Levels, immediately intriguing as a soft-spoken car thief who takes the kids into a dangerous circle of crime; and John Chandler, former Sam Peckinpah regular, as the nasty leader of that ring.

And one other actor, for trivia buffs: Vincent D’Onofrio, who gives a sensational performance as the fat, frightened Marine in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, here turns up in a small role as a garage owner. If you don’t recognize him, it’s forgivable; he’s about 60 pounds lighter here than he was in Kubrick’s movie.

Adventures in Babysitting has “summer movie” written all over it, but it’s not even quite good enough to make the grade in that unexalted category. And we should be even harder on Chris Columbus for not making the material work. He has no excuse, since his own experiences with babysitters are presumably more recent than those of any other Hollywood director.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

I guess you can sense that my own screenwriting efforts were not attracting much attention, thus my enmity for CC (which I hope comes across as tongue-in-cheek, mostly). He has gone on, of course, to much more. The movie’s got its fans, and it fits into that run of post-Bueller teen escapades that were around for a while. And it’s got Elisabeth Shue, a should’ve-been-bigger-star who didn’t go there.