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MOVIE REVIEWS : TAKING IN THE SIGHTS OF INNER AND OUTER JUNKETS : ‘Adventures in Babysitting’ Travels on Its Personality

Personality can carry you a long way--and, for stretches of the new teen comedy “Adventures in Babysitting” (citywide), personality is what keeps it all afloat. It’s one of those movies that, however well it works now, might have been pretty bad with a different cast and director. It doesn’t really transcend its genre; it just stretches it in amusing and sometimes surprising ways.

“Adventures” charts the wild night of a jilted suburbanite high school baby sitter, Chris (Elisabeth Shue), and her three rambunctious charges: love-struck freshman Brad (Keith Coogan); Sara (Maia Brewton), a plucky little Marvel Comics’ Thor fan; and neighbor Daryl (Anthony Rapp), a lecherous little wisecracker who at first suggests a young Anthony Michael Hall clone.

Through a series of improbable, dovetailing mishaps--generated when Chris’ buddy Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller) runs away and then loses her nerve at the bus depot--this foursome winds up in the raunchier parts of Chicago: down and dirty, in all those mean streets and soulful haunts suburban kids dream about but rarely see.

That’s the basic scheme: the innocents abroad, the Wonder white-bread kids stumbling through blues clubs and back alleys, pursued by gangsters and killers, swaying in Windy City cliffhangers on the glass-slab skyscrapers. The script is brisk but basically a ragbag--a buzzy little farce with a little John Hughes, a little “Blues Brothers,” a little “After Hours.” The structure is taut but the logic is loose.

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In a way, “Adventures” succumbs to many of the worst failings of ‘80s Hollywood. It keeps ripping along, whipping up archetypal situations, playing with stereotypes--sometimes offensively--and trying to zip and flip us past all its gaps of logic or exaggeration. The direction abets this flummery by keeping the pace cranked up and the music pouring down like MTV rain.

If it works here, it’s because of the rightness of the pace and the little grace notes of character worked in along the way: the barbed brother-sister ribbing between Coogan and Newton; the way Rapp hesitates and smirks when he says, “Ya think?”; that terrific sunny little grin--a real crush-maker--of Shue’s; and the way Calvin Levels, as street-smart car thief Joe Gipp, keeps sizing everybody up. There’s something sympathetic about the space that director Chris Columbus allots to these characters, the delight he takes in idiosyncrasies. And this whole cast has a genuine simpatico and warmth--especially Levels, Shue and Rapp.

Up to now, Columbus has been a scriptwriter, mostly for Steven Spielberg. He writes derivative stuff, too, but in his own scripts there’s a verve about the construction, a childlike sparkle in the lines. More than anybody else in the Spielberg stable he sometimes captures that Capraesque, Disneyesque, good-time feel.

So it seems strange that he’s made his directorial debut with someone else’s writing (David Simkins), especially since most of this movie’s problems seem to come from its script. Is it Columbus or Simkins who’s to blame for the curious restaurant scene, with a wild screaming match completely ignored by waiters and maitre d’? Who decided the rationale for why these kids, pursued by armed criminals, never call the police? Are they out of dimes? We might also wonder--as we watch a 9-year-old girl pursued by killers, clinging to the outside wall of a skyscraper--why her friends don’t walk over to her parents, who are standing, unknowing, only yards away, and tell them what’s going on.

Eventually, we have to accept all of this, and much more, simply because of the tyranny of movie archetype: Because kids don’t tell their parents what’s happening in movies like this, people don’t call cops in movies like this, heroes do whatever they want in movies like this--and maitre d’s and waiters in fashionable Chicago restaurants are apparently stone deaf or shrinking violets.

It’s a likable movie anyway, due again to personality: the flecks that get through the story, the huge dollops from Columbus and his cast. (Vincent D’Onofrio appears here--minus his 70 pounds from “Full Metal Jacket"--and his role and appearance are a shocker.)

‘ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING’

A Touchstone Pictures/Silver Screen Partners III presentation of a Debra Hill/Lynda Obst production. Producers Hill, Obst. Director Chris Columbus. Script David Simkins. Camera Ric Waite. Production design Todd Hallowell. Editors Fredric and William Steinkamp. Music Michael Kamen. With Elisabeth Shue, Maia Brewton, Keith Coogan, Anthony Rapp, Calvin Levels.

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children younger than 13).


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