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So Bad It’s Brilliant: Don’t Tell Mom, The Babysitter’s Dead

Written by: Ron Bricker


Roger Ebert:Two Stars

Rolling Stone:Three Stars

Stella Artois: BRILLIANT!!

Image Reviewed by some critics as a “been done before kids-on-the-loose cheese fest”, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead is actually a masterpiece. Directed by Stephen Herek (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure), and starring Christina Applegate as Sue Ellen “Swell” Crandell, DTMTBD is 90 minutes of pure fun and cheese. The kind that doesn’t stink!

It’s a coming of age story about the Crandell Family: Swell, Kenny, Zach, Melissa and Walter. Their single mother is going on a trip to Australia for the summer, and they can’t wait for their summer of freedom…until the doorbell rings. What appears to be a sweet grandmother figure standing at the door to hand out leaflets is actually Mrs. Sturak: their babysitter. Long gone is their adult-free adventure. Mom kisses them goodbye, leaves Mrs. Sturak with their summer funds, and hops on her ride to The Outback. Now that’s parenting!

Mrs. Sturak then shows her true colors and introduces the kids to their worst nightmare. Whistle in hand and chore chart mounted in the living room, what was once the gift of having the time of their lives is now boot camp from hell. As the kids rebel against Deranged Mary Poppins and her totalitarian regime, they come to the conclusion that she is not ignoring their protests, she's actually dead. Ding Dong the bitch is dead, and the film takes a wild turn into what these kids are going to do with the body, no money, and no mother.

After dumping the body at the town funeral parlor with a nice note, Swell ends up looking for a job because they decide to hide the fact that Poppins croaked. Her first job is at one of those creepy fast food joints with clowns and cigarette smoking burger flippers. We’ve all been there. The manager is a ridiculously happy (lithium?) and over the top twit. Everything is enjoyable to him (insert Dianetics joke here), even scrapping spitballs off the drive-thru window “with a really fun squeegee!” Swell quits, and the only reason why we had to laugh through the fat vat nightmare scene was to introduce Brian, Swell’s love interest. Because what would this type of film be without a cute boy toy for back-story?

Flipping through the want ads on her second quest for employment, to the perfectly scored track: Draggin The Line, Swell finds her dream first job in the fashion industry as a receptionist. She rummages through her mother’s closet filled with hideous 80s ensembles with big bows and even bigger shoulders. But this bitch knows how to make shoulder pads look fierce!

At the interview, she meets Carolyn (portrayed cold as ice by Jayne Brook), the current receptionist who's ready for her promotion. She's a total rag and rude, crude, and conniving. However, Swell’s charm beats her to what was once her promotion, as the Executive Administrative Assistant to the Senior Vice President of Operations: Rose Lindsay. Rose Lindsay, played with sass and class by Joanna Cassidy, is the perfect boss. She's kind, loyal, and a cutthroat businesswoman to boot. All she needs is a, “I'm right on top of that Rose” to ensure that tasks were being completed no matter what. Rose’s only downfall is her love for sleaze-ball Gus: The office scoundrel who won’t leave Swell alone.  Oh Gus. You are incredibly gross, and yet you really know how to work that suit. Damn you!

Swell has some big shoes to fill in this position. She doesn’t know how to turn on the computer, or fax things, and really, what the fuck is a QED report? As Swell battles the office rag, multiple tasks, and Gus’s advances, she also has 4 siblings lying around the house that she needs to take care of, and a needy boyfriend (Corn Dog Brian). It’s tough being seventeen!

Obstacle after obstacle, the Crandell kids still manage to hide the fact that the babysitter is dead, and as Swell climbs the corporate ladder life is looking really good; until she finds out that the kids were stealing her petty cash money, and that her company is going downhill. However, as naive as we all thought Swell was and that this was the end of the road, her innocence and determination drive her to come up with a plan that could save the company, and the Crandells.

Here lies the classic Fix-It-Up-80s/early 90s montage representing the Crandells transformation. Everyone’s shortcomings become their ingenious talent to bury the hole that they dug for themselves by being lazy and lying. It all ends in a showdown at a banquet with all the trimmings and confessions. And the last line is killer!

Christina Applegate was perfect as Swell. She talked the talk and walked the walk of the quintessential know it all teen, the epitome of 80s/90s heroin chic. Whether it was lying about her age, her resume, or pretending that her siblings were actually her kids, she thought on her toes and worked around it with grace and style. The woman is every little girl’s idol. Swell’s relationship with her brother Kenny is also fantastic. The classic scene where Swell comes home late to a clean house and burnt dinner is amazing. The siblings bicker over work, stress, kids and scorched casserole like a couple that's been married for 20 years. It's utterly priceless.

Which leads me to my love for Kenny Crandell, portrayed flawlessly by Keith Coogan (Adventures in Babysitting… coincidence?). Kenny is without a doubt second, in my humble opinion, to Spicoli (if you don’t who I’m talking about, you have serious issues) as one of the best teen comedy stoners ever. His laugh was off the charts hilarious, and his gift for delivering one-liners like, “dishes are done man,” or “PMS city man” are unforgettable. His character never gave a damn about anything. Chillin’ with friends, and getting doped up were his priorities until a little accident: His younger brother Walter falls off the roof while he and his friends were blazed, and his character starts to seamlessly shift from 80s rocker to 90s prep. His present responsibilities as a dependable brother make him reevaluate his current state and future goals. Kenny’s art for creating stellar munchies also help him to consider going to school and pursuing a career in the culinary arts. However, Kenny never lost his luster and his transformation was believable: 'I'm thinking I'm gonna go to school. Take some home heck classes or some shit like that.'

David Duchovny also makes an appearance in this film, as Carolyn’s oily beau hunk, Bruce, who will stop at nothing to expose Swell’s true identity. It’s a real treat to see him in such a bizarre role. I’d love to stop him on the street and ask him how he prepared for the role of Bruce, and not once mention The X Files. Just because I can.

This combination of over-the-top characters with genuine acting is pure genius. None of them are trying to fool you. The true beauty of this film is that it doesn’t take itself seriously.  I can pull a bucket out of my ass full of pretentious bullshit theories on how this film symbolizes the downfall of the nuclear family and the rise of a new breed of youth raised by single parents and the barriers they face, or the fact that the babysitter represents the death of what some like to call “traditional American values,” but no one actually watches this film to get that message. At least I hope not, because I literally just made all of that up.

To get down to it realistically, DTMTBD delivers that timeless theme of breaking boundaries and breaking the right kind of rules without being cliché.  It’s all about the actor’s chemistry, the score, the 80s/early 90s fix-it-up-montages, and the sheer innocence that make up the brilliance of Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitters Dead. Let’s resurrect the “pure humor with no big message” comedy. I really miss them, don’t you?

 

Author: Ron Bricker

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