It would be easy to dismiss Parental Guidance as a meaningless, hollow, plastic motion picture meant to elicit a few family laughs. It would be easy to give Billy Crystal a pat on the head and say “nice try.” And it would be easy to throw a few pity points at the feet of the fabulous Bette Midler, iconic but so shamefully misused in this catastrophic excuse for entertainment. But easy is boring.
Directed by Andy Fickman, the screen genius behind such hits as She’s the Man and Who’s Your Daddy?, this 2012 “comedy” is a family quilt of focus group baloney, broad characterizations, simplistic psycho-babble, ageism, and other assorted crap. So desperate is this movie to cover all the demographic bases that it employs the likes of Tony Hawk and makes a plot-point out of the X Games. Rad, dude.
Crystal is Artie Decker, a narcissistic jerk who announces minor league baseball games. Despite his popularity, he’s fired for not being current enough. His wife Diane (Midler) tries to ease his pain, but he struggles to get over it. Right on cue, their distant daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) calls to ask them to babysit their three grandchildren for a few days.
Artie and Diane haven’t seen their grandkids in about a year (or 10 months), so Diane jumps at the chance. Upon their arrival, they discover that they are the “second grandparents.” Stunned, Artie and Diane try to prove themselves to Alice and her husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott). Unfortunately for the grandparents, Alice and Phil run a much tighter ship than they’re used to.
The humour you manage to get out of Parental Guidance may largely hinge on how you feel about the supposed “helicopter parents.” Alice and Phil are perfectly nice, perfectly capable parents. They have dedicated the lion’s share of their lives to their kids and seem like pretty decent people overall, even if they have named one of their kids Barker.
But the vast majority of the jokes come from the reactionary clash between old and new approaches to parenting, which is what makes the more sinister subtext all the more off-putting. Most of the problems centre on the character of Artie, who lies constantly and remains so wrapped up in himself that he insults the careful therapy of a stuttering grandchild and forces another to hold his bladder while he seeks out a job.
This being a “family comedy,” these indiscretions are played off as mostly trivial. A little head-hanging and treacly musical cues will cover for anything, even Artie’s good-mannered lecturing of his daughter for “drifting away” over the years. With such an egocentric prick of a father, her distance is understandable. He only shows interest in where she works when he realizes that it can benefit him.
Parental Guidance lives and dies by stereotypes, of course. It plays up Artie’s confusion over Pan-Asian cuisine as a big laugh and mines Diane’s sexualized cluelessness for all it’s worth. The older people spend their time constantly befuddled, even by breakfast, while their young counterparts are all hippy-dippy in their desires to “use their words” and so on. When Artie does bend down from the heavens to give the kids some advice, it’s along the Facebook-useless line of “believe in yourself and it’ll work out.”
On the surface, Fickman’s movie is a sloppy and unfunny family movie. It features Crystal, who I’ve admittedly only liked in animated form, in all his slushy-stupid glory and has nowhere to go with its clumsy, predictable, humdrum, mawkish episodes. But the travesty of Parental Guidance is that it doesn’t stop at the bottom; it digs deeper, invading and infecting all unlucky enough to see it.