In 1987, Chris Columbus already had a couple of highly popular films to his credit — Gremlins and The Goonies — but solely as a writer, and had not yet made his directorial debut. He did so with Adventures in Babysitting, starring Elisabeth Shue as Chris Parker, a high school senior who, having been stood up by her boyfriend (Bradley Whitford), winds up babysitting the neighbor kids. She expects a quiet, if boring, night. She gets far more than that, starting when her friend Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller) calls her from the train station. She’s run away from home, but changed her mind, and needs Chris to come pick her up. With the kids in tow, Chris sets off to retrieve her friend, and gets far, far more excitement than she bargained for.
Adventures in Babysitting starts off just a little slow, setting the stage with Chris winding up babysitting the kids, and establishing their characters; Sara (Maia Brewton) is a precocious grade-schooler and a huge fan of Marvel Comics’ Thor, and Brad (Keith Coogan) is just a few years younger than Chris — old enough to have a crush on her, young enough for her to have no interest in him. I’ve mentioned before that with comedies, it’s easier to win my approval if they get me laughing early. When things start off slowly, my brain has a tendency to start inserting its own smart remarks (these are often the source of the captions I write in these reviews). Adventures in Babysitting‘s set up gave just enough time for this to start happening, but right when Brenda is being accosted in the phone booth and my brain is about to start kicking up one-liners, the movie beats me to the punch with a better line than anything I would have come up with. Right then and there, it won me over and I was laughing throughout the rest of the film.
“You’re in my home!”
The adventure starts there as well, as Brenda convinces Chris to come and get her. Not having any options on where to leave them, Chris takes Brad and Sara with them — and is blackmailed into also taking Brad’s obnoxious friend Daryl (Anthony Rapp). Their car blows a tire on the freeway, and that’s the least of their troubles. One problem quickly develops into another as they’re picked up by a tow-truck driver, caught in a domestic dispute, and even wind up with the members of a chop shop chasing after them. The film does a cheerful high wire act between believability and absurdity, and maintains its balance all the way through. The circumstances the kids find themselves in are ridiculous, but somehow always manage to flow naturally out of the prior events.
Hi. Hi there. Nice criminal enterprise you’ve got going here. Is that a Caddy? Hi there.
Shue does a good job of portraying the beleaguered babysitter, easily blending the concern she has for the kids, her worries about getting caught by the kids’ parents, and her irritation at the situations she finds herself in. The actors playing the boys are a bit shakier, not having the timing down quite as pat. They still do a good job as awkward teenage boys, though, and Rapp especially makes you want to throttle him on occasion. And Maia Brewton does an admirable job for a child actor. George Newbern has a small but important role as Dan, a college boy they meet along the way, and unfortunately the part probably needed to be padded out a bit, as his character is kind of flat. But that’s really the only complaint I have about the major characters. What really sell this film are the bit parts. John Davis Chandler is genuinely intimidating as the head mobster, while Ron Canada gets some good laughs as his out-of-his-depth subordinate Graydon; Calvin Levels plays Joe Gipp, a fairly sympathetic member of the crew, and manages to create a likeable character with facial expressions and a few lines. John Ford Noonan steals a few scenes as the tow-truck driver, and Vincent D’Onofrio has a cameo that’s great not just for his lines but also for the brilliant and unexpected setup. But there are simply too many great bit parts in this film for me to mention them all; virtually every scene has some minor character who is doing their best to steal the spotlight away from the main characters.
Raise your right hand and solemnly swear you won’t make creepy jokes about missing body parts. Hmm. Problem.
On paper, Adventures in Babysitting should be a pretty weak film. The stars are mostly child actors, inexperienced by definition. Its setup, babysitting, is one of the most mundane activities there is. And turning that into an adventure is patently absurd. But Adventures in Babysitting takes that absurdity and runs with it, providing funny scene after funny scene, an entertaining narrative, and any weakness in the acting of the child stars is more than made up for by Shue and the various character actors throughout the film. Chris Columbus couldn’t have asked for a better directorial debut.