From a distance, strictly as a demographic/marketing proposition, “Parental Guidance” appears pretty shrewdly constructed: a light-hearted movie about grandparents and kids, designed to softly appeal to the holiday audience at both extremes, as well as those parents sandwiched between them. The execution, alas, prevents this from being a genuine crowdpleaser, with the better moments (mostly of the schmaltzy variety) more than offset by the irritating and tedious ones. Pic could still yield reasonable returns as an inoffensive alternative to Oscar bait and epics, but even on those terms, “Parental Guidance” is not suggested.
Functioning as producer and star, Billy Crystal manages to work in some mildly amusing shtick along the way in his capacity as a minor-league baseball announcer, albeit one who loses his longtime gig in the early going. Yet Crystal’s Artie and his wife, Diane (Bette Midler), have grown distant from their sole child, Alice (Marisa Tomei), so they’re as surprised as anybody when their daughter and her hubby (Tom Everett Scott) — in a sure sign that there’s no other option — enlist these less favored grandparents to watch the kids while they escape on a work-related trip.
It’s the kids, frankly, where “Parental Guidance” mostly breaks down, not because the three young actors (Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush and Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) are bad, but because their quirks and means of acting out are so unrelatable, petulant or simply annoying.
In addition, director Andy Fickman and writers Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse can’t really settle on go-to gags or a consistent tone. So while the movie threatens to get mileage out of the “prototype smart house” in which the family lives, which flummoxes Artie, the bit mostly founders. The same goes for the notion of Artie’s old-fashioned ideas butting up against (and triumphing over) New Age, self-esteem-building, “We don’t keep score when our kids play baseball” parenting.
The movie also drops the ball on what could actually have provided greater depth — namely, how someone like Artie, whose identity is so wrapped up in his job, deals with being separated from it. Even a sequence involving his audition to broadcast the X Games feels less like a case of an older guy grasping for a lifeline than a mere pander to kids and teens, down to the cameo by skateboarding legend Tony Hawk.
Dim the star wattage, and there’s precious little to distinguish this from the average Hallmark Channel movie (including Marc Shaiman’s score). True, Crystal, Midler and Tomei conjure a few heartwarming exchanges — with the first two even teaming on a semi-gratuitous song — but instead of hewing toward “Parenthood,” the film keeps lurching toward farcical sequences that fall flat. Small wonder “Parental Guidance” winds up resorting to pee, poop and vomit in what begins to look like comedic desperation. (On the plus side, that “rude humor” is responsible for the “PG” rating, so at least there’s a bingo on that front.)
Frankly, the movie’s best idea waits until the closing credits, which feature pictures of key cast and crew members with their families, adding a closing dollop of sweetness — and making it more difficult, to borrow one of Crystal’s baseball metaphors, to tee off on them.
Still, there’s a telling line toward the end when — amid a particularly chaotic family encounter — the young daughter groans, “We are so past weird.” By then, she’s right. But unfortunately, just not close enough to good.