‘Parental Guidance’ veers between crass and sugary

THERE’S a moment in Parental Guidance that surely was as uncomfortable for Billy Crystal to film as it is to watch.

Crystal plays washed-up former minor-league announcer Artie Decker, who, in an act of desperation, finagles an audition to do play-by-play for a skateboard competition at the X Games. Fifty-eight-year-old Marty shows up to the audition in sunglasses, hoodie, and whatever else middle-aged men think the kids are wearing these days, and awkwardly tries to drop lingo like “halfpipe” and “gnarly” into his patter. It’s painful.

The parallels had to hurt. Crystal was a huge movie star in the ’80s and ’90s with hits like City Slickers and When Harry Met Sally. But, Oscar hosting gigs notwithstanding, he stumbled on the bridge to the 21st century with America’s Sweethearts and Analyse That, and hasn’t starred in a movie in 10 years.

And here he is now, playing the out-of-touch grandpa in a witless family comedy that veers between crass and sugary. Analyse that, why don’t you.

Artie and his wife, Diane (Bette Midler, also a long time between hits), are called to fly from Fresno to Atlanta to watch their daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei)’s three kids while she and her husband (Tom Everett Scott) go to a business conference in Hilton Head. Marty and Brenda fear that they’re “the other grandparents” in the family, and jump at the chance to connect with their grandchildren.

The major joke of the film is the culture clash between Artie and Diane’s old-school parenting and Alice’s touchy-feely helicopter-parent style, where “No!” becomes “Consider the consequences, honey”, sugar is banned from the house, and everyone is over-scheduled with playdates and extra-curricular activities.

The result is a pretty unhappy bunch: 12-year-old overachiever Harper (Bailee Madison) is freaking out about a violin recital, eight-year-old Turner (Joshua Rush) is being picked on at school, and five-year-old Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) has rage issues that only his imaginary kangaroo friend can assuage.

Of course, despite a few missteps, it’s Grandma and Grandpa’s firm touch that ends up fixing all the kids’ problems.

It’s really a mash note to the Baby Boomer generation and their tireless parental wisdom – even if they can’t figure out how to work the DVR, the movie seems to say, they know kids better than their own kids do.

Which doesn’t make sense in the film, since it’s made clear that Artie and Diane weren’t the best parents to Alice, but whatever.

There are moments where the movie tries to nudge itself in the direction of a more realistic family comedy in the vein of the original Parenthood. Tomei and Crystal in particular have a nice connection, as Artie starts to realise his on-the-road job took its toll on his only daughter growing up.

And baseball freak Crystal manages to work in the famous “Shot Heard Round the World” broadcast in a sweet bit of grandfather-grandson bonding with the shy Turner.

But for every moment like that, there are three dumb or gross jokes that seem beneath Crystal and Midler; it’s not much fun to watch the perennial Oscar host take a baseball bat to the groin or vomit on a child, let alone in the same scene. Midler retains a little more dignity as an ex-weathergirl, although why the movie stops short so she and Crystal can perform Book of Love in the kitchen, is beyond me.

The most genuine moment in Parental Guidance occurs during the closing credits, which features photos of the cast with their real-life families. If only a little of that genuine affection could have been transferred over to the movie itself.

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