What is a great film? Something that is truly timeless, or something which is a classic of its genre? Obviously, no-one's pretending "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead" is a great film (no great film has a title of more than three words.
Think about it) but nonetheless, one does get to see how a film handles its composition of several genres rather than one. It's the best strategy towards greatness, and I hope to see this attempted more frequently.
"Don't Tell Mom..." is at an interesting cultural crossroads. It's basically the last of the Eighties high-concept comedies: the same broad category as films like Big and Crocodile Dundee, where the whole film comes from the pitch. However, we get to see shades of Wayne's World-esquire Generation X teen movie, especially in the character of Rob, and unfortunately the short-lived genre of 'kids acting in grown-up situations and delivering ever-so-amusing grownup lines.' John Hughes was the master of this style of film-making, and there's definitely shades of his work in here, most noticeably the setting of a film largely within a family house.
First of all - the pitch. Kids left at home for summer with babysitter. Babysitter dies and kids must fend for themselves with as few people let in on the secret as possible. From this moment on, the film was always going to go about the format of throwing its naive, brattish teenagers in the real world at the deep end and extracting as much amusement as possible from their sinking-or-swimming.
The screenplay starts to thin at this point. Of the five kids in the house, only two are feasibly old enough to work, or indeed to learn any sort of life lesson throughout this experience. The plot then follows Sue Ellen as she stumbles her way into a job and up the corporate ladder (the script is devoid of jokes at this point, but I kept watching because Christina Applegate is a surprisingly good actress.) Everything from this point is a misjudgment - it's virtually scrawled across the screen that Sue Ellen is getting some life lessons and becoming a young adult. The film could have done without the 'boyfriend' storyline though - it's without doubt the saggiest part of the film.
More interesting is the Kenny storyline. Younger brother Kenny goes from being a hopeless layabout stoner with no inkling to as what he wants to do in life to a man with a plan. Lack of screen time prohibits us from truly understanding why, but we do get an insight into the film's message - the real world is about sacrifice. Kenny must throw away his carefree existence if he wants to become a man.
Sure, this film has faults like pearls on a string - the annoying smaller children who eat up screen time and contribute nothing but an unbearable cuteness (and they're not even that cute: they steal money from their mom's purse - twice.) Sue Ellen's corporate life is shown as patronizingly simple, but that's a fault of all movies in general, you can't have clever successful people as the heroes because the audience feels intimidated. The other major fault I'm going to point out is the chronic lack of laughs. About the biggest giggle was David Duchovny's horrendous yellow shirt. But "Don't Tell Mom," much like its characters, has an innocent, naive charm about it, and if you can put aside your critical mauling instinct, it won't be the worst two hours of your celluloid life.