Though it gets slightly better toward the end, "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead" is one of those movies that don't know what they want to be until it's too late.
Mainly, this is a vehicle for Christina Applegate, who plays the dumb slut daughter on the TV series "Married . . . With Children," here playing a more intelligent and wholesome teenager named Swell.
The plot has Swell, along with her sister and three brothers, being left alone for the summer when their divorced mom flies off to Australia with a boyfriend. Hired to care for them is an aged baby sitter who promptly dies.
So, for the first act, the film is a dark comic version of "Psycho" crossed with "Home Alone." But eventually it evolves into a female version of "The Secret of My Success," with Swell creating a too-good-to-believe resume for herself and landing a prominent position with a clothing company.
One has to wonder if the filmmakers didn't just come up with a great title, thinking the rest would take care of itself. This movie is so full of plot holes and silly turns and elements that are introduced and then forgotten that it quickly becomes apparent there was no single overriding vision.
Even the title gag, the dead baby sitter, is virtually forgotten after the first 15 minutes, until it is brought up again for the film's final moments. Along with it, the dark edge also disappears.
And if you thought "Home Alone" was a bit weak in the way it plotted Kevin's being left behind when the family went to Europe, "Don't Tell Mom" is truly dumb. A single mother goes off for two months, leaving five young children with an elderly baby sitter she has not even met until a few moments before her departure? Right.
The most annoying characters are the kids, all of them obnoxious in varying degrees. The oldest brother (Keith Coogan) is a punker who smokes marijuana, treats his mother disrespectfully and throws half-eaten food all around the house. Other children steal money from Mom, from their older sister — even from a cash box that Swell brings home.
Of course, toward the end they all rapidly reform — and to be fair, nearly every other character in the film is just as obnoxious as they are. But that's hardly a recommendation.
All of this might be palatable if the film was funny enough. A rapid-fire farce will allow you to forget inconsistencies. Instead, however, it's very lethargic, with its only real laughs at the end. You will likely be looking at your watch more than the screen.
Applegate is appealing in the lead role. In fact, she's the only player who is consistently appealing throughout the film. That's because she manages to play her role in a more down-to-earth manner than the others — even such vets as Joanna Cassidy and John Getz are too silly and over the top.
(We won't even mention the film's penchant for music videos whenever the film runs out of steam — which is often.)
"Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead" is rated PG-13 for profanity, vulgarity, marijuana smoking, comic violence and a quick shot of some nude photos.