Film Review: Parental Guidance

Some nice comic points are scored against all those awful, over-indulgent parents turning out new generations of impossible brats, but not enough to compensate for the commercial family slop in which they float.

Artie Decker (Billy Crystal) is a minor-league baseball radio announcer who’s just been canned from his job in a pretty blatant case of ageism. Meanwhile, his wife Diane (Bette Midler) is consumed with the prospect of their looking after their grandchildren while their daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) and son-in-law Phil (Tom Everett Scott) jet away for some overdue quality time together. As Artie and Diane’s lack of “appropriate” parenting skills has always been a bone of contention here, Diane is determined to prove them wrong, and gain grandparent pride of place over Phil’s father and mother, prominently displaced on the mantelpiece.

Things are far from easy, however, given that all three preciously surnamed, over-coddled grandchildren have their own problems, from too-tightly-wound Harper (Bailee Madison) to Turner (Joshua Rush), who stutters and is a bully target, to Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf), who, with his imaginary kangaroo friend, is such a mischievous, entitled demon that he makes the brats in Bright Eyes, Sitting Pretty and the entire Village of the Damned seem like little angels by comparison.

There are some nice satirical touches in Parental Guidance, like tech-geek Phil’s scary overhaul of his house, a nightmare of Big Brother surveillance inventions which monitor your every move and are otherwise impossibly complex to operate. The overweening, hovering helicopter style of parenting so prevalent today which engenders such impossibly entitled kids proves a rich comic target, especially when Artie rails at a Little League baseball game in which boys never strike out in the interests of their precious, nascent self-esteem.  

But the screenplay, by husband-and-wife team Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse, all too often and willingly degenerates into easy, queasy family entertainment mush, rife with synthetic “heartwarming” emotions and unconvincingly overwrought comic antics—like having Barker urinate at a skateboarding exhibition, with the result a near-lethal tumble for shredding star Tony Hawk. These moments largely undo all the good stuff and, as with so many Hollywood family farces, the smile on your face soon tightens into a death-mask rictus of forbearance, as you wait for the high-jinks to end in a warm and fuzzy, slightly nauseating group hug.

Crystal manages to be quite appealing as this very beset grandpa: He hits all the right notes even in the most outlandish moments, and had me wishing that he, and not Robert De Niro, had played the crazy dad role in Silver Linings Playbook. Crystal’s eyes literally shine with real affection when he recalls beloved baseball moments of the past, where De Niro only strenuously acted that deep-seated sports passion. Crystal’s the producer here, and the focus is squarely on his character, to the detriment of Midler’s. Looking too sleekly more like a Beverly Hills doyenne than a suburban granny and, also because of cosmetic surgery, actually younger than Tomei (as a preternatural Constance Bennett once did when playing Lana Turner’s mother-in-law in Madame X), she’s once more utterly game with a sad dearth of material. She and Crystal do have a charming moment when they spontaneously perform that old chestnut “The Book of Love” together, but I wish—once again—that more use had been made of her musical/comic chops.

Tomei is rather touching as a misguided control freak, and Scott—with virtually nothing to play—has a hunky affability. Gedde Watanabe, the immortal Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles, pops up as a pan-Asian restaurateur and once more proves that he is the Asian Stepin Fetchit after all these years, making you hope those paychecks were worth it. To quote The Who, the kids are all right, although Rush’s stutter is painfully unconvincing and forced.