"PARENTAL GUIDANCE" — ★★ — Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott, Bailee Madison; PG (some rude humor); in general release on Christmas Day
The family-friendliest movie comedy this holiday season is also the sappiest and schmaltziest.
And thanks to Billy Crystal, the shtickiest.
"Parental Guidance" is a mild-mannered riff on parenting, then-and-now.
It contrasts the top-down/career-first mentality of one generation with the coddled "nurturing" of today, but never takes a stand on which is better.
Basically, it's a vehicle for Billy Crystal, and to a lesser degree Bette Midler, to riff on the spoiled, over-indulged and sometimes uptight kids their kid is raising.
Artie (Crystal) is a minor league baseball announcer who never got to his dream job, covering San Francisco Giants games. He's content to make homespun wisecracks in front of the mike for the Fresno Grizzlies. Until they lay him off before being not hip, not social media-savvy.
"I'll tweet! I'll make whatever noise you want!"
His retired "weather girl" wife, Diane, interrupts her pole-dance aerobics class to comfort him and listen to his lies about how young he "feels."
"You're 38? Paint the house!"
Daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) is a web designer living in Atlanta with husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) in the totally computerized house Phil designed.
Their kids — 12-8-5 — have play dates, ballgames and rehearsals. Violinist daughter Harper (Bailee Madison) would discover boys, if she wasn't stressing over a big audition that sets up her Berlin Philharmonic life plan. Turner (Joshua Rush) is a bullied stammerer whose little league doesn't keep score, denying him the chance to excel at anything. And Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) is a mop-topped terror with an imaginary kangaroo friend.
Into this world come "the OTHER grandparents," the West Coast couple that never sees them because Artie has been all about the job all his life. They're not the first choice, but Phil and Alice have a get-away planned — if only Alice can let go.
Whatever Artie and Diane did with Alice isn't good enough for Alice's kids. She takes their finicky dinner orders, by text. The kids aren't allowed sugar, are ferried hither and yon to appointments — touchy-feely speech therapy for Turner, violin lessons from a Russian "Tiger Mom" for Harper. Tofu mom Alice never lets them hear the word "No."
Crystal delivers tepidly caustic rants, Midler invokes the occasional inappropriate life lesson to Harper and Tomei struggles to find anything fun about playing a smothering mother.
The laughs are, to use the old-fashioned term, telegraphed, with director Andy Fickman ("The Game Plan") clearing the decks to make every laugh line a stale showcase moment for his stars. A Billy and Bette duet of "Who Wrote the Book of Love" is cute, but the setup is sluggish — it has no life. A quicker, more cluttered movie would have been funnier.
There are sparks between generations, but with the exception of Madison, the child actors are in over their heads and the adults seem as if they've just met.
At least the sentimental stuff works. And the toilet jokes.
"Parental Guidance" is rated PG for some rude humor; running time: 100 minutes.
3 points for parents
Language: It appears the filmmakers really wanted to make a family movie about a family and took the time to leave out the regular profanity found in most films. There is a little potty humor, but nothing crass.
Sensuality: Mom and Dad are seen together in the bedroom talking about being interested in each other. Dad is acting playful toward his wife on a video call but is cut short. There is no nudity.
Family: The filmmakers succeeded in demonstrating that families are not perfect nor can parents always be perfect. In doing so, they created a great film for families to watch together since everyone will have something that touches them in some way.
— Shawn O'Neill