Movie-going moms and dads typically ask two questions of your average reviewer: Can we take the kids or should we get a baby sitter? When it comes to "Adventures in Babysitting," I would suggest hiring a baby sitter and sending her/him off to the octaplex with the little boppers.
"Babysitting," the directorial debut of "The Goonies" and "Gremlins" writer Chris Columbus, is a sweet-natured, adolescent variation on the big-city black comedy "After Hours." Its cute kid cast of suburban innocents get lost in the Urban Underland with their imperturbable baby sitter Chris.
Elisabeth Shue, previously "The Karate Kid's" girlfriend, gives Chris the common sense of a student council president as she leads this Brady Bunch through the terrors of Chicago's Tenderloin (at times actually Toronto strewn with garbage for authenticity). Chris' escapades begin when her dream date falls through and she agrees to baby-sit for the Andersons' daughter Sara, a devotee of the action hero Thor, and her older brother Brad, a pimply 15-year-old with a crush on the unattainable senior Chris.
Nine-year-old TV actress Maia Brewton plays the fearless Sara; 17-year-old Keith Coogan, grandson of the late Jackie Coogan, is her Clearasil-dependent brother; and 15-year-old stage actor Anthony Rapp rounds out the gang as Brad's best friend Daryl, drunk on hormones. They blackmail Chris into taking them with her downtown to rescue her geeky girlfriend (Penelope Ann Miller) who's stranded at the rat-infested bus depot. No sooner are they underway than Chris, who forgets her purse and her spare, finds herself flat broke on the freeway with a flat tire. After receiving a helping hook from a disabled tow trucker, the little band is soon in trouble again, this time with a multiethnic car theft ring.
The story by David Simkins cribs from Ferris Bueller and other teen heroes, but it does diverge from the standard John Hughes outsider-looking-to-get-inside script. It's an encouraging confidence-builder aimed at Wonder Bread kids who are thinking of driving downtown. The city, for adults only in these kids' eyes, is a place of dark alleys and dark faces -- Hispanic gangsters, Italian mobsters and black hipsters -- typecast, but not necessarily unfriendly in this only partly paranoid scenario.
In fact, the movie's warmest, most spirited scene, takes place in a black bar, where Chris sings "Babysitting Blues," backed up by legendary blues man Albert Collins. "Nobody gets out of here without singing the blues," says Collins, who lends character, tempo and texture to this scrubby-dubby little movie. Tony Award winner Calvin Levels also humanizes the sort of part that Robert Townsend parodies in "Hollywood Shuffle." He's Joe, a jive, high-five inner-city car thief who is in the act of heisting a big American automobile when the kids commandeer it as an escape vehicle. Chris fusses at them to put on their seat belts, while Joe speeds through the mean streets. "Just drop us off at the corner," says Chris, prissy and polite. "Are you kidding?" asks Joe. "I wouldn't even get out in this neighborhood."
A stolen-car czar, however, decides the kids could use concrete high-tops and the car chases begin. There's lots of action, but it never comes to a great screeching climax of comedy and cosmic teen awareness. There's something thin and tinny here. The actors talk to each other as if by space phone. It's a tiny psychic time gap, no bigger than the distance between David Letterman's two front teeth. But it feels empty.
The kids don't convey the camaraderie of "The Goonies" exactly. They aren't that bold or tenacious -- except for brassy little Brewton. But then they aren't working with an experienced action director like "Goonies' " Richard Donner. Columbus is making his maiden voyage. And he doesn't shake the excitement out of this screenplay; he smoothes the climaxes into the transitions as if he were mixing house paint. Nevertheless Columbus, like Hughes, is supplying basically benign viewing for kids. Nobody gets his face scraped off. In fact, the kids meet kindness where they least expect to find it -- in the mean streets.
Let's hope little suburbanites everywhere will take the movie-maker's optimism with a grain of salt.
Adventures in Babysitting, at area theaters, is rated PG and contains mild expletives and a couple of fistfights.