I know, I know. What the hell is this 80’s teen comedy doing in a weekly feature about superhero movies?
Well, in honor of the debut of Marvel’s Thor in theaters this past Friday, I thought I’d give you a look at the Marvel star’s only other big-screen appearance (sort of). And you never know, there might be some bonus surprises as well.
So okay, Adventures in Babysitting was the directorial debut of Chris Columbus, who had first gained prominence in the movie world with his screenplay to Gremlins, and who went on to direct movies like Home Alone and the first two Harry Potter installments. And though Gremlins was in some ways a Warner Brothers cartoon come to life, it also had a vein of darkness running through it. So who knew what surprises Columbus had in store when he got behind the camera, especially with a comedy which is a symbolic trip to Hell and back.
The film opens with young ingenue Elizabeth Shue lip-syncing to a Phil Spector song as she gets dressed up for a date.
This was not her first screen appearance, but it was her first starring role, and she carries it off well. As she finishes getting dressed, her douchebag jock of a boyfriend shows up, driving a Camaro with the license plate “So Cool.” And look, it’s Josh Lyman, future White House Deputy Chief of Staff.
Okay, actually it’s Bradley Whitford playing Kris’s boyfriend, Mike. He cancels their date, claiming his little sister is sick, and also refuses to kiss Kris, claiming he might be contagious.
Which leaves Kris available to sit for the Andersons when they call. Daughter Sara is a huge fan of Thor from Marvel Comics, while older brother Brad has a huge crush on Kris. Shortly after the Andersons leave for a party, Kris gets an emergency call from her friend Brenda. Brenda has run away from home and gone to the bus station, but has no money for a ticket and is terrified of the awful people there.
Brenda is played by Penelope Ann Miller, who later ditched the glasses to become a romantic lead in films like The Shadow, Kindergarten Cop and Carlito’s Way. She begs Kris to come get her, while in the background, the TV is playing John Carpenter’s Halloween, a movie about a babysitter who is menaced by a serial killer.
Not only is it a bad omen, but it’s also an in-joke reference to co-producer Debra Hill, who also produced Halloween. Oh, and if you look closely at Sara’s backpack, you’ll see that it bears a picture of Gizmo from Gremlins, another in-joke.
So after everyone makes a big deal of the horrors of going into “The City,” Kris and the kids pile into her mother’s station wagon to make the trip, along with Brad’s jerky friend Daryl, who blackmails Kris into bringing him along. As they drive, Kris is telling spooky stories about hook-handed murderers, while Daryl is showing Brad the latest Playboy in the back seat. The cover girl/Playmate is a dead ringer for Kris. Sexiest MacGuffin Ever!
Brad throws the magazine out the window before Kris can see it, which Daryl doesn’t appreciate, since it’s his dad’s. Sara also points out the building in “The City” where Thor lives, and I’ve got to say, she’s the most unconvincing comics fan ever.
But there’s no time to nitpick, because suddenly, they have a blowout and are stuck on the freeway with a flat tire and no spare. And then fate arrives in the form of a tow truck.
The driver is a scary hook-handed man named Handsome John Pruitt. He seems menacing, but is actually friendly, and offers to tow the car to his boss’s garage and pay for a new tire, since Kris has forgotten her purse. So the kids all get in the truck, but on the way to the garage, Pruitt gets a call on the radio that a certain car is parked in front of his house again. Pruitt grabs a pistol from the glove compartment and floors the tow truck.
After a terrifying ride on the highway (that kid Sara loves, obviously), they get to Pruitt’s house, and he runs inside. Next thing they know, shots are fired and a man comes smashing out through the window. As the man tries to run away and fasten his pants simultaneously, Pruitt shoots after him, but his wife spoils his aim, causing him to shoot out the window in the tow truck and the windshield of Kris’s mother’s car. Kris and the kids flee the truck and take refuge in a big red Cadillac, which happens to belong to the guy trying to fasten his pants. Before they can lock the doors, the doors lock themselves, and then the guy hiding in the front seat drives them away.
Meet kindly car thief Joe Gipp. He promises to take them to the train station or something after he concludes his business with the car. He takes them to a chop shop, whose mobbed-up owners are not so thrilled to see four white kids from the suburbs. The kids are locked in an office to be disposed of later. But they sneak out along the warehouse rafters to an open window and escape, along with a Playboy Daryl stole to replace the one that he lost.
Bad move. The Playboy happens to contain notes on a number of stolen car transactions that could put the bad guys away for 20 years, as they helpfully narrate to us as they get in the car to give chase. The kids end up trapped in an alley and flee through a doorway into a club. They somehow end up on stage with a blues band. The menacing, but ultimately kindly blues guitarist (a cameo appearance by famed guitarist Albert Collins) tells them that “nobody leaves this place without singing the blues,” and suddenly, it’s a musical.
Kris and the kids improv their way through the “Babysitting Blues” and win over an initially hostile crowd, while the bad guys (who apparently prefer Sinatra) lurk in the audience waiting for their chance to grab the kids. But as the kids are leaving, the guitarist stops the crooks by telling them, “Nobody leaves this place without singing the blues.” Man, that club is strict.
Brad confesses his crush on Kris and tells her that her boyfriend’s a douchebag, but somehow doesn’t convince Kris to love him back. Meanwhile, Daryl tries to hook up with a prostitute (played by Monica Devereux, the film’s choreographer and the director’s wife), which leads to Very Special Moment when they discover the prostitute is only 17, the same age as Kris. Aw…
Kris decides to head to the building where Brad and Sara’s parents are attending a fancy party and confess all. But the bad guys are on their tail again, so the kids flee onto an elevated train, where they get caught in the middle of a potential gang rumble. Brad gets stabbed in the foot, and Kris has had enough. She grabs the knife and growls “Don’t fuck with the babysitter!”
Bitch be crazy, man. The gangs let Kris and kids off the train, and they carry Brad to a nearby hospital, where they run into Handsome John Pruitt, getting his wounds treated from his fight with the guy banging his wife. Pruitt tells Kris that the car is at Dawson’s Garage. He has paid for a new windshield, since he broke it, but she’ll have to pay fifty bucks for the new tire. Fifty bucks she doesn’t have.
On their way to pick up the car, the kids stop off at a frat party so Sara can use the bathroom, which is where Kris meets hansome Dan. And now it’s time for Completely Unexpected Bonus Coolness, and even better, it’s a Superman two-fer. Check it out.
Preppy dude on the right hogging all the good lighting is Dan, played by George Newbern. At first glance, he looks like one of those forgettable, blandly good-looking actors the producers hire when they can’t get the more famous guy he vaguely resembles, in this case John Cusack. But for superhero fans, he’s better known as the voice of Superman in the Justice League animated series.
Now look at the guy on the left with the glasses. This is a rare sighting of the screenwriter cameo. His name is David Simkins, and after writing this movie, he went on to a long career as a writer and producer in television on such shows as The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., Blade: The Series, Warehouse 13, and Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.
So Kris shares a dance with SuperDan, who valiantly offers to pay for the tire, though he can only raise $45, while Daryl makes out with a drunken college girl played by a young Lolita Davidovich, who went on to star with Paul Newman in Blaze. Oh yeah, and suddenly, three-fourths of the way through the movie, we find out that “The City” is not just a nameless Everyburg, but is in fact Chicago. Good to know.
SuperDan drives them to Dawson’s Garage, where they meet Mister Dawson himself, who turns out to be…
The Mighty Thor. No, wait a minute, that guy looks familiar. Holy crap, that’s Vincent D’Onofrio! Seriously, when I decided to revisit this film, I knew there would be a guy playing a pseudo-Thor in this movie, but I didn’t expect Private Pyle with a blond mullet.
Anyway, ultra-Thor fan Sara literally has a religious experience. She falls on her knees to worship at his feet, which creeps him out.
Dawson refuses to give Kris her car back without another $5, but Sara then charms him by offering him her helmet, since the ball cap is apparently keeping him from realizing that he’s a comic book hero. And I can’t stand this any longer. I must dork out for a moment.
Sara is seriously the most unconvincing comics fan I think I’ve ever seen, and it’s all because of lazy writing. Sorry, Simkins, but it’s true. Sara is supposed to be this ultra-devoted Thor fan, who spends all her spare time either reading his comics or drawing pictures of him, yet she doesn’t know that he lives in New York City rather than Chicago, nor does she know that his secret identity is not garage owner Dawson but doctor Donald Blake. And she not once, but twice, refers to his “special helmet,” when the comic has never, to my knowledge, ascribed any special properties whatsoever to his hat. But it’s needed for the plot, so whatevs. Like I said, lazy.
Dawson’s heart grows three sizes when Sara calls him her hero, and he lets Kris have the car. Finally, they are on the way home, but they are being followed by the car thieves. And then, even worse, Kris discovers that boyfriend Mike went out on their date… with someone else.
She goes into the restaurant to confront him and makes a big, fake movie scene. Meanwhile, Sara sneaks out to peek in the windows of a toy store, where she is discovered by the bad guys. She runs away to the building where her father works, which is where her parents are attending a big party. Kris and the boys follow.
Sara gets on the elevator and comes out on a floor that’s under construction, two floors above the big soiree (even though she also pressed the button for the floor the party’s on–according to the chocolate stains on the buttons–the doors apparently never opened on that floor; the plot requires her to be above the party, so the elevator takes her straight up). Hmmm… a fancy dress party in a high-rise building with upper floors under construction, a lone person being chased by thugs. It’s almost as if she’s wandered into another movie, except that Die Hard didn’t come out until the next year, 1988. Die Hard totally ripped off Adventures in Babysitting, y’all!
Anyway, after some close calls, Kris manages to retrieve Sara safely, and with the help of kindly car thief Joe Gipp (who explains the deal with the Playboy again, in case you forgot), they all escape back to the suburbs after a quick stop to pick up Brenda.
Interesting moment here. There was a very famous place in Chicago called Mammy’s Pancake House, but from the signs I’ve seen on the Internet, this was not it. Maybe this was another Mammy’s just trying to ride the original’s coattails. But beyond there, you see a Peaches record store. Peaches was a huge chain that became pretty dominant in the late 70’s/early 80’s, but virtually disappeared in the late 80’s. Stuff I’ve read online says that the chain folded because they bet against CD’s. I’m betting excessive debt via junk bonds was also involved (just because that killed a lot of businesses during that timeframe).
So they zoom home, and Kris barely has enough time to clean up a mess in the kitchen a la Risky Business before the Andersons return home. Everyone is safe and happy, and there isn’t even a stain on Kris’s coat. The kids all agree that it was the best night of their lives. And when Kris leaves, she runs into SuperDan, returning Sara’s skate. They kiss. Everybody’s happy.
Lazy writing aside, Adventures in Babysitting was innocuous fun that established Columbus as a director, but also marked the start of Columbus’s move away from darker material like Gremlins (which wasn’t even all that dark).
Moral of the story? Never steal a man’s Playboy.