The lame title of Parental Guidance offers an accurate indication of its contents: generic, thoughtless and forgettable. For now, it lingers at the cineplexes — a lump of coal in their holiday stockings.
Billy Crystal and Bette Midler headline as Artie and Diane Decker, the “other grandparents” who agree to an eleventh-hour request to babysit their daughter’s three kids while she and her husband go off on a work vacation. Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott play the helicopter parents who would rather say “consider the consequences” than “no.” Artie is perplexed by their style of micromanaging and coddling. He’s clearly on to something, as their kids are a knot of psychological issues.
Those issues are met by Artie’s over-the-top exasperation, groan-worthy one-liners, and physical comedy. Little of it is funny; much is embarrassing. During a classical music performance, he scrambles on hands and knees after the youngest grandkid. After a baseball bat to the family jewels, he upchucks his lunch on a Little Leaguer. Midler is spared these indignities, while Tomei lingers via a transparent plot device that gives her more screen time to wear her pained expressions and complain that her parents aren’t up to the task.
Parental Guidance shares the same fundamental flaw as the worst, laziest comedies – they beg for laughs by piling on the outrageous circumstances: the redhaired moppet of the clan takes a leak from the top of a skateboard ramp; the kids, upon having their first bites of cake, turn into sugar-addled monsters. The problem is that when insanity is met with insanity, humor loses. Movies set up like this don’t need Jerry Lewis as comic foil. They need W.C. Fields.
Besides the strain for laughs, the most memorable thing about Parental Guidance is its execrable need to have the younger generation pay tribute to Artie’s nostalgia. Artie gives the middle grandkid a recording of the final call from the 1951 pennant race between the Dodgers and Giants. Miracle of miracles, it ends up curing him of his stutter, as evidenced when he takes to the stage of his sister’s music recital and leaves the house misty-eyed with his play-by-play. Grandma and grandpa discover their daughter has programmed “Book of Love” into a playlist, leading to a wholly unnecessary and uninspiring Crystal/Midler duet in the kitchen. When they finally bond with the kids, it’s over that hoariest of ancient past times, kick the can.
A better film, one still commercially inclined, would have found a way to merge Artie’s old-school sensibilities with his daughter’s desire to instill a positive mental framework in her kids. That would have helped bring the holiday “feel good” Parental Guidance wants to give its audience. An even better movie would have bothered being funny.