December 2, 2010

Film Review - "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead"

 Okay, before you bolt for the nearest fire exit (or as Peter Griffin would say, "hit the ol' dusty trail"), hear me out. Thanks to the godsend that is YouTube, my Sunday night got a whole lot sweeter with Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead, a film that if nothing else is getting quite a cult following.

 It's the beginning of summer vacation, and 17-year old Sue Ellen "Swell" Crandell (Christina Applegate) is stoked to spend the summer "a free woman" with the absence of her mother, who's leaving for vacation in Australia. That is, until elderly Mrs. Sturak, hired to look after Sue Ellen and her four siblings, shows up on their doorstep. Once Mom leaves, Mrs. Sturak lays down the law on Swell and her sibs, stoner dude Kenny (Keith Coogan), aspiring ladies' man Zach (Christopher Pettiet), tomboy Melissa (Danielle Harris), and the youngest, Walter (Robert Hy Gorman). Pretty soon, they band together to rise up against Mrs. Sturak, but when Sue Ellen goes into her room to confront her, she discovers her dead in her chair. In a panic, the siblings decide against calling their mother or the police, as doing so would jepoardize their chances of summer fun, so they put Mrs. Sturak's body in her car's trunk, drive to a local morgue, and drop the body off with a note saying "Nice old lady inside. Died of natural causes".

 When the Crandells realize Mrs. Sturak's body still has the cash their mother left for them, a game of "Rock, Paper, Scissors" puts Sue Ellen on the hunt for a job. She gets one at Clown Dog, and befriends her coworker, Bryan (Josh Charles), but soon quits the fast food joint due to grunt labor and bad conditions. Forging up her resume, she poses as a 28-year-old for a position in reception at General Apparel West (GAW), a clothing manufacturer. Despite the absolute ice queenery of Carolyn (Jayne Brook), the receptionist due for promotion, Swell's resume attracts the attention of Senior V.P. Rose Lindsey (Joanna Cassidy), who offers her the position of executive administrative assistant (try saying that three times in a row).

 Not knowing a thing about the job she was given, Sue Ellen gets coworker Cathy to do many of the duties her job specifies (as well as show her how to use a fax machine). While that's going on, Sue Ellen has to hold off the advances of coworker Gus, who's also dating Rose, borrow money from the "petty cash" box to pay for groceries, try to maintain her relationship with Bryan, and avoid Carolyn, who's revealed to be Bryan's sister. At home, Kenny struggles to maintain the household, Zach loses the girl he was dating, and the siblings are seen to be taking from the "petty cash" box as well, but to buy lavish items instead.

 As the film goes on, Sue Ellen grows closer to Bryan, but her deception makes him suspicious. Cracks in her work life start to show, as the pressures of the office stress out Sue Ellen as well. Carolyn, not knowing her brother's dating Sue Ellen, is scheming with her boyfriend Bruce (David Duchovny) to get rid of her, and Sue Ellen is hesitant to tell Rose of Gus's behavior towards her, since she and Rose have become good friends. Due to taxes, her paycheck is less than she expected and she's unable to pay back the money taken from the petty cash box. Walter breaks his leg when he falls off their roof, and Kenny, who was supposed to look after him, blames himself.

 As if things weren't bad enough, GAW is going under due to their fashions not selling. Sue Ellen goes out on a limb, designing new, hipper fashions and offering to hold a fashion show at the Crandall house, since the petty cash can't afford to rent a hall. Impressed with Swell's designs, Rose agrees.

 The event goes off without a hitch, until Bryan, in his Clown Dog delivery truck, shows up, and is followed soon after by Mrs. Crandell, back home early. Upon seeing them, Sue Ellen breaks down and confesses the truth to everybody, but Rose tells her the buyers loved her designs and don't care about her personal life. With the business saved, Rose offers the "real" Sue Ellen another position, but Sue Ellen declines to attend college, as now she knows what she wants to do in her life. Rose promises to put in a good word for her at a college, and the two make plans to meet for lunch the next week.

 Now inside the house, Swell tries to calm down her furious mother, but Mrs. Crandell only does so when she notices the newfound maturity of her children, as well as the new items in the house. Sue Ellen and Bryan reconcile, but then Mrs. Crandell asks about the whereabouts of Mrs. Sturak. Cut to a tombstone (visited by two morgue attendants who gambled away the money on her person) that only reads "Nice Old Lady Inside. Died of Natural Causes".

 At the time of its release, critics ripped into the film for its "escapism". True that. But what most of them didn't notice was the character development of both Swell and Kenny. At the film's beginning, Sue Ellen's a cigarette-smoking, somewhat obnoxious teenager determined to spend her summer her way. Upon getting her job at GAW, she assumes the role of mother of the household, clashing most with Kenny, who flakes out on his assigned housework duties. Later on, it becomes clear that her work and her personal life are getting to her, and she works marathon hours at the office to earn a bigger paycheck. As much as I love Married... With Children, Christina Applegate's range and emotion aren't as fully fleshed out there as they are here. The fashion show and her admitting to her deception is proof.

 Kenny at the start of the film is the metal-loving, textbook example of a 90's stoner. He and his gang of friends are a constant source of irritation for Sue Ellen as she tries to provide for the household. Left at home while Sue Ellen's at work, Kenny tries to take it upon himself to run the household, his trying to make Belgian waffles being a highlight. When Walter breaks his leg, Kenny is regretful, as he had ignored Walter when he was calling him for help. This proves to be the catalyst for the change in his behavior. Now, instead of getting stoned with his friends, he watches Julia Child and becomes a budding chef, preparing the food for the GAW fashion show. He also cleans up his appearance, attracting the attention of Sue Ellen's friend Nicole. When he talks with a friend after the show, Kenny says he has a date with Nicole, and that he's also gotten a good idea of what he wants to do with his life. His friend, rather than feel alienated, happily congratulates him.

 The three younger siblings don't get as much attention, but they're not forgotten. Zach uses the petty cash to buy a diamond for his crush, only for her to dump him. Melissa is eager to sign up for Little League, and as Kenny matures, we see him cheering her on at a game when she hits the ball. Walter is a game show addict who uses his "share" of the petty cash to buy a massive home entertainment system (which is top of the line for the time, but a fullscreen TV is a bit of a no-no these days). Once Sue Ellen finds out what they've been doing with the cash, she is furious and orders them to grow up and take care of the household.

 The date scene under the dock with Sue Ellen and Bryan is worth a mention, as the two discuss what plans they have after high school. They bring up that they assumed their parents had a college fund for them, one big enough to cover all of the tuition costs, a thought many seniors have until it's too late. The fish seen flopping at their feet when they kiss is a great touch.

 Sue Ellen's boss Rose Lindsey probably deserves a post of her own. Really! When she welcomes Sue Ellen into the company (and into Sue Ellen's new office), there's a flush of giddiness and positivity, especially when Gus enters the office. She takes young Sue Ellen under her wing, and gives advice Sue Ellen ends up repeating to other coworkers. Her words of wisdom range from coworkers always having to reply "I'm right on top of that, Rose" whenever she's on the phone or not alone and asks them something, to "Every girl over 25 should have a cucumber in their house". When I heard the latter line, I literally did a double take and thought back to the scene from Family Guy with a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters ("Rose is fine, moving on..."). She looks past Sue Ellen's actions and lies and instead tells off Carolyn for trying to undermine Sue Ellen, in what TV Tropes would call a Crowning Moment of Awesome. I mean, seriously, who wouldn't want Rose for a boss (other than the prudish or highly asthmatic)? Joanna Cassidy is absolutely awesome here. Her role as Delores in Who Framed Roger Rabbit doesn't even scratch the surface of her talents compared to this film. Whenever she's told by Carolyn about a detail Sue Ellen lied about, if you look at her facial expressions, you're absolutely convinced she'll be angry, but to your surprise she congratulates Sue Ellen for creatively handling her duties. This happens several times, and even if you know what happens at the end, when you watch one of those scenes you think "maybe this time she'll be pissed", but that's practically never the case. Near the film's end, she's so impressed with Sue Ellen that she's willing to give her a fresh start in the company. Convention is broken when the two plan to meet the next week, leaving their friendship intact and stronger than ever. That scene of them together is a Crowning Moment of Heartwarming.

 Jayne Brook does fine as uberbitch Carolyn, and David Duchovny provides both support and eye candy (I'm sure you ladies out there wanted that wallet picture of him in a speedo to be in this film instead of The Simpsons). It's hard to watch the scene of him and Brook snooping through Sue Ellen's office in the dark with a flashlight without humming the X-Files theme ("Duh-duh-duh duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh duh-duh-duh..."). Kimmy Robertson fits the bill as Cathy, a character with a mouse-like voice who is ironically the only character to have a husband. You might recognize her as the voice of Samantha Stanky from the Simpsons episode "Bart's Friend Falls in Love". Speaking of The Simpsons, Dan Castellaneta is the voice of the animated Mrs. Sturak in the film's opening animated sequence. John Getz is perfect as the perverted slimeball known as Gus, because when his advances toward Sue Ellen start to make the audience uncomfortable, you know he's gotta be doing something right. He gets his just desserts before the fashion show starts, when Sue Ellen tells Rose about his behavior, and he's dumped right then and there.

 With so many interconnected plotlines, you'd think the movie would get you confused, but thankfully it doesn't drag on for too long, nor does it abandon a plotline halfway through. Every major character gets a beginning, a middle, and an ending. With the time it's given, the film uses it well.

 So that's Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead. A film that is definitely worth a look if you're at Sue Ellen's age at the onset of adulthood, or you're just plain tired of the teen movies they make today. Cheers!


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