Look, I'm no fool. I know there's an audience for everything, even the new family comedy Parental Guidance. With the Baby Boomer teaming no one was asking for—Billy Crystal and Bette Midler—melded to that most moribund of genres, rugrats "comedy," I'm gonna call this one for grandparents babysitting grandkids.
But it's my job to provide a public service, like, say, a crossing guard or a guy paid to stand next to an open manhole and say, "Don't fall in there." There's a scene in this picture during which—swear to God—Crystal and Midler bond with their high-strung, tech-savvy grandkids by forcing them out to the lawn to play Kick the Can. Well, there you go: Kick the Can would be infinitely more entertaining, and a heckuva lot cheaper than going to see this movie, and you didn't even have to suffer through it to learn your lesson. No need to thank me: merry Christmas!
That scene and others would actually be bearable if every adult in the film weren't an insufferable, self-absorbed, hateful idiot, which screenwriters Lisa Addario & Joe Syracuse obviously see as a prerequisite for character arcs leading to redemption. Crystal and Midler (both sporting dye jobs) play Artie and Diane Decker, extra-annoying variations on their respective screen personas of irritable kvetcher and braying shopper-showgirl. Though their daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) rues the thought, she enlists her parents in a pinch to take care of her kids (Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush and Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) for a few days.
So Artie and Diane move into the prototype smart house invented by Alice's husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) and begin troubleshooting the movie kids and having movie problems. Director Andy Fickman obligingly indulges every cliché in the family-film playbook: day-glo food mess, broad ethnic stereotypes, and needlessly demeaning old jokes painting Artie as hopelessly out of touch (including the requisite sequence in which he denies his age with a comically inappropriate costume: in this case, skater gear).
Formerly "de voice of the Fresno Grizzlies," Artie proves more interested in sneakily scoring his dream job of broadcasting for the San Francisco Giants than he does in winning over his grandkids, while Diane proves her airheadedness by endorsing smoking and drinking to Alice's twelve-year-old. And yet, to Alice's horror, Grandpa and Grandma know best, or at least better than struggling helicopter parents Alice and Phil.
In one running joke, the kids robotically laugh, under parents' orders, at Artie's corny jokes. Audiences are under no such obligation. But Parental Guidance wins half a star for three seconds of sublime absurdity ripped out of a Marx Brothers movie: a crouching, face-painted Crystal answering a fuddy-duddy's musical question "Who brings a child to Tchaikovsky?!" with the wild-eyed retort "Me! Voodoo Man!" Now, that's comedy. All three seconds of it.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]