Parental Guidance (2012)
105 min., rated PG.
To slightly defend "Parental Guidance" with a backhanded compliment, there are worse babysitters out there. It's not "Old Dogs" or "Little Fockers," so it's got that going for it. The film's main attractions, Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, are game to go as the long-overdue pairing of a studio farce for the holiday season, but "Parental Guidance" isn't much of a comeback vehicle. It's cornball, it's pat, it's slapsticky, and were it not for the two headliners as grandparents, this would be little more than a hacky, factory-made network sitcom from the '90s.
Old-school approaches to child-rearing versus modern helicopter-parent syndrome is the through-line of the premise. Fired from his job as a minor-league baseball commentator, Artie Decker (Billy Crystal) and supportive wife Diane (Bette Midler), a former weather girl, don't get to see their three grandchildren often. But when their daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei), a Type-A web designer, and her husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) call them from Atlanta about going on a week-long work vacation, they jump at the chance to stay with the kids in hopes of proving they aren't just the "other grandparents." There's generation-gap collision as soon as Artie and Diane enter Alice and Phil's prototyped smart house with a fridge full of everything soy and tofu. All three kids have their own quirks: 12-year-old Harper (Bailee Madison) is a tightly wound perfectionist who's busy practicing violin for an audition; middle child Turner (Joshua Rush) has a stuttering issue and is bullied at school because of it; and the youngest, Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf), runs wild with his imaginary kangaroo friend and insists on calling Grandpa Artie "Fartie." So, based on her parents' reactions to her 21st-century methods of parenting, Alice doesn't quite trust Mom and Dad to look after the kids for a week and decides to hang back supposedly for a work emergency, then take a later flight out to meet Phil. Can Artie and Diane get their second chance at grandparenting with their comparatively loose rules?
Because of his delivery, Crystal has some play with tired old-meets-new jokes involving Twitter and "Angry Birds." "Gee-whiz, wasn't she the villain in the last James Bond movie?" Midler's Diane jokes to Harper about her strict Russian violin instructor. Both Crystal and Midler can still make a line zing with their big personalities and have moments of coming off like recognizable human beings when they aren't directed to just ham it up. Though they get out alive, these veteran stars are still hamstrung by a lame script aiming to put six-year-olds in stitches. Just imagine what these two could have done had they been working from a smart, more acerbic script. As for Tomei, she's stuck somewhere between overbearing caricature and a real person but doesn't embarrass herself, and the kids mug as much as possible, especially Breitkopf as Barker.
Overeager director Andy Fickman, who hasn't exactly rolled out the most prize-winning filmography ("She's the Man," "The Game Plan," "You Again"), flattens almost all of his gags with a bold, italicized, and underlined broadness. It certainly doesn't help that the potty-humored script by Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse has never met a hit-in-the-crotch, cake-in-the-face, vomit, constipation, and urination gag it didn't like. Early on, it's telegraphed that the kids can't eat sugar, so it's only natural that Artie will later feed them cake, leaving the room and returning to find the kids feasting on the dessert like feral crack addicts. In another lame-brained piece of sitcom, where a DayGlo-faced Artie chases Barker down the auditorium aisles at a Tchaikovsky concert, it's silly enough to make anyone over the age of twelve groan and cringe. Finally, when the tone-deaf music score isn't exaggerating every comic gag before driving them into the ground, it's punctuating the dramatic sentiment to make sure the viewer is uplifted.
Nine Christmases ago, the Steve Martin/Bonnie Hunt-starrer "Cheaper by the Dozen" filled the holiday family-comedy niche. As farcical as it was, it was also funny, warm, and completely likable. (Its sequel is a different story.) A product like "Parental Guidance" is just sugar-coated and out of touch, especially when the grandparents teach the kids how to play a game of Kick the Can, hold a burial for the youngest's imaginary friend, and every issue is synthetically fixed before the mawkish finish line. There is a nicely handled moment between Artie and Alice by the end, but it's too little, too late for honesty. And yet, while an overriding amount of annoying idiocy and pandering is slapped on, "Parental Guidance" is just tolerable enough and ever so slightly amusing. For fluff, it isn't as ghastly as many cynical, needlessly angry critics make it out to be. Hooray for mediocrity!