With 2011 quickly approaching its conclusion and the apocalyptic 2012 looming, all of the Oscar contenders are funneling into theaters. It’s a great time to be a film fan as the screens are filled with some of the finest movies of the year. Well except for this week, anyway. Yes, there is a fan-damn-tastic Oscar pic opening up in the form of the chilly British spy thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but other than that we’re being treated to some Hollywood fluff in the ensemble rom-com New Year’s Eve and the Jonah Hill comedy Adventures in Babysitting 2 sorry, I mean The Sitter.
Despite the lengthy title, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a film deserving of anyone’s time, The Sitter is all kinds of okay and New Year’s Eve well, it sure has a lot of movie stars. Still, 1.5 out of 3 ain’t bad for a chilly December weekend of movie watching.
The Good: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
When you sign up for a spy movie you expect to see a James Bond-style, globe trotting adventure with beautiful ladies, fast cars, and plenty of violence. Well, that’s not what you’re going to get from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The film is based on a novel by John Le Carre, a former employee of Britain’s MI6 whose work has previously been adapted into brilliant movies like The Constant Gardener and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.
His mundanely realistic version of British spy life is very much the anti-James Bond. They’re brooding, depressing Cold War tales about stuffy British gentlemen in nicotine-stained suits whose actions have a tremendous impact on world politics, but rarely involve car chases and shootouts. That might sound rather dull in theory, but watching it play out is anything but. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of the tensest and most suspenseful films you’re likely to see this year despite a rather plodding pace.
The film stars Gary Oldman as weathered old spy George Smiley, put in charge of sniffing out a Russian mole hidden inside MI6. The cast of suspects reads like a who’s who of British character actors including the likes of Colin Firth, Tom Hardy (aka Bane in the upcoming Batman flick), John Hurt, Toby Jones, and Mark Strong. As you might expect, everyone is remarkable in the film with special notice going to Oldman for playing a quiet man with a brilliant mind. Oldman is able to communicate more with a small gesture or change of posture than most actors can with a loud show-off role. In essence it’s a simple whodunit, but in practice so much more — a dark journey of paranoia and deceit filled with fascinating characters, false leads, and just enough suspense set pieces to prevent shuffling in seats.
For such a deeply uptight British tale, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that the movie was directed by a Swede, Tomas Alfredson, the man responsible for the thrillingly depressing preteen vampire flick Let the Right One In. Alfredson may not share the cultural background of Le Carre and the cast, but his profound sense of period detail and melancholic dread could not be more perfectly suited to the material. The film is dripping with atmosphere and while there is little action in the bang-bang blockbuster sense, it’s a gripping thriller.
Rarely is entertainment so exquisitely made and high-minded. This is a spy movie for audiences who like to have their intellect teased as much as their gut. I’m sure naysayers will come out of the woodwork to claim that the film is boring, but they can get their spy jollies at a neighboring theater once Tom Cruise stars blowing up bad guys in the third Mission Impossible. For everyone else, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is vital viewing. The only shame is that theaters won’t allow tea drinking and chain-smoking during screenings. I guess you’ll have to wait until DVD for that private joy.
The Bad: New Year’s Eve
Full disclosure: it wasn’t possible to get into a press screening of New Year’s Eve, which is pretty well a guaranteed sign of bad filmmaking. However, it’s not as if that was a shock. The film is a sort of unofficial sequel to director Gary Marshall’s Valentine’s Day, which was a particularly embarrassing entry in the not exactly shining romantic comedy genre.
The films take a quantity-over-quality approach. Rather than paying for a single bad romantic comedy, you get to watch a dozen crappy rom-coms condensed and intertwined. I suppose there’s some morbid curiosity to be had in getting to see Sarah Jessica Parker, Ludacris, Robert DeNiro, and Ashton Kutcher in the same movie, but that novelty will wear off by the end of the opening credits and you’ll be stuck with the two hours of tedium that follows. It’s a film best avoided and probably will be.
In fact, with so many big Christmas releases on the way, don’t be surprised if this sucker is out of the multiplexes by New Year's Eve. The fact that the studio didn’t want to wait until around that time to release the movie isn’t exactly a major endorsement either. Let’s just hope that the movie does poorly enough at the box office to kill off Marshall’s holiday-themed ensemble rom-com franchise before we’re stuck with a dreary St. Patrick’s Day or the most disappointing entry in the Halloween franchise of all time.
The Sitter: The Sitter
Falling somewhere between Adventures in Babysitting and Superbad without being nearly as good as either, The Sitter sees Jonah Hill play one of the worst babysitters in the history of cinema. He stars as one of his typically foul-mouthed slackers who recently dropped out of college and wastes away his days watching his single mother’s TV and providing oral sex to his disinterested girlfriend.
With nothing better to do and a long-awaited date for his mother hanging in the
balance, Hill agrees to spend an evening babysitting three children (one boy with emotional issues, a little girl who idolizes the Paris Hilton lifestyle, and an adopted Latino immigrant with a taste for explosives). The stage is set for a dull evening of childcare, but with this being an R-rated comedy, that doesn’t last long.
Hill’s girlfriend gives him a call and offers him a shot at sex if he can score her some cocaine and bring it to a party in the city. Since Hill is desperate, he agrees and brings the kids along for the ride. Shockingly, taking children to a drug dealer turns out to be a bad idea and soon the babysitter and children are driving around the city trying to find $10,000 and dodging gangbangers and cokeheads in the process. In other words, this ain’t your Daddy’s babysitting comedy.
There’s nothing ambitious about The Sitter. It’s a fairly generic, madcap, R-rated comedy that’s quite predictable. There’s never a second where it seems like Hill is in actual danger and you know he’s going to have a heart-to-heart with each of the kids before the credits. Things play out as expected, but at least there are a few laughs. Hill can always be counted on for few decent F-bomb-packed one-liners and underrated character actor Sam Rockwell makes for a hilariously inspired choice as the dinosaur egg obsessed drug dealer.
It’s the kind of movie that will play well on cable and at a trim 81 minutes it goes down smoothly. I suppose if that’s all you’re looking for, it’s satisfying enough, but there’s no denying this is a missed opportunity. The cast is talented and the director is former art house wunderkind David Gordon Green who won critical accolades for films like George Washington and All the Real Girls before making an unexpected career transition into raunchy comedies with Pineapple Express. The talents involved should be capable of more than this. The Sitter is a funny, but instantly forgettable. The film is practically guaranteed to disappear into obscurity, but should at least make a few undemanding audiences chuckle before that happens.