Noah, the nobody's fool played by Jonah Hill in the haphazardly slapped together comedy The Sitter is a character in search of a movie, a setup in search of a punch line. Less directed, more handled by David Gordon Green, this on-and-off funny rehash of Adventures in Babysitting centers on a college dropout who, at his mother's urging, reluctantly agrees to mind three children for pay. Somewhat of a big baby himself, Noah sets off in a mood, apparently unaware that most American excursions in comedy these days come with mandatory opportunities for growth.
One thing leads to another leads for Noah and his three charges as they scramble through the New York in a misadventure that begins with some broken crockery and, like a snowball rolling downhill, gathers progressively larger pieces, including a drug dealer, Karl "with a K" (Sam Rockwell), whose minions include a lisping roller skater, bikinied male bodybuilders and JB Smoove from "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Despite Mr. Hill, his three young co-stars and frequent flashes of Looney Tunes-style anarchy the movie can't seem to find a good groove for itself. This makes for numerous scenes that often struggle to be funny where it should come naturally.
Some of it, though, is absurdly comic, like the shot of a guy on a Segway that exists for no reason other than that someone here thought the movie could use a small laugh right then. It did and it could use more. The episodic script, credited to Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, doesn't take any actual risks even when it seems as if the filmmakers are trying to, as in a scene that puts the children in the same car as an exploding package of cocaine, a joke that in an earlier age would have involved a bag of flour. The coke gives an otherwise empty interlude a mild kick, but since the children don't even sniff the air there's nothing at stake, including the audience's sensibilities.
The children, Slater, Blithe and Rodrigò — played by a winning Max Records, Landry Bender and Kevin Hernandez — suffer neuroses that would make Daffy Duck look totally sane, but they're eventually in for some Disney-style homilies. None of the story's squishiness comes as a real surprise, though the thinness of the material and Mr. Green's apparent willingness to settle for so little do. In the last few years he has pursued a path as a mainstream comedy director with a slightly bent take and a fine cinematographer in Tim Orr, a trajectory that has yielded diminishing returns, first with Pineapple Express and then with Your Highness and now this. The idea, as Steven Soderbergh has shown, is that you're supposed to make one movie for you and one for them — not everything for them.