‘Parental Guidance,’ giving grandparenting a bad name
Updated: December 31, 2012 11:44AM
★You know how parental guidance is often recommended when it comes to choosing a movie? This time, not so much. This time, it’s a very, very bad idea.
It takes a lot of effort to come up with something as contrived and utterly artificial as this painfully unfunny family comedy. If they gave out awards for awful (Wait, they do! Cast an expectant glance at the Razzie Award nominations Jan. 10), this film could easily reap some well-deserved reverse accolades. In the meantime, consider this recommendation regarding “Parental Guidance.” Ignore it and it will probably go away.
From a safe distance, it might seem fairly innocuous and even somewhat appealing. You get a family comedy featuring formerly bankable stars (Billy Crystal, Bette Midler) in grandparent mode as out-of-touch, old-school elders butting heads with their New Age-influenced, work-obsessed daughter and son-in-law (Marisa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott) and their three variously troubled children, with plenty of one-liners, pratfalls, potty jokes and schmaltzy sentiment — a little something for everyone from 9 to 90, capiche? The only trouble is that everything about it is strained and phony, and very little of it works, especially the comedy, because it’s hard for an audience to be moved by a story that fails so completely to be convincing, even for a moment. Somebody should have considered putting a little believe in this make-believe.
Crystal and Midler certainly try to make the funny stuff work, firing off zingers and rocking the double takes. Especially Crystal, who treats his role as recently involuntarily retired minor-league baseball announcer Artie as a walking stand-up act, featuring some surprisingly mean-spirited one-liners. His opening-scene on-the-air insults of an overweight woman in the stands during a Fresno Grizzlies game gives a good idea of what to expect throughout. Midler gets some mileage from giving Artie the evil eye, but her character has little on her mind aside from wanting to improve their status as the unwelcome “other grandparents” when their daughter Alice reluctantly calls to ask them to watch the kids while she and husband Phil slip away for some rare vacation time.
There are a few gags here and there about Artie’s inability to cope with the computerized, fully automated house that Phil invented and some nonsense about him auditioning to become an X Games announcer on ESPN. But the main event is the way he attempts to counter the effects of the over-involved, kinder-gentler parenting style of Alice and Phil, which has turned older sister Harper (Bailee Madison) into an obsessive over-achiever, middle brother Turner (Joshua Rush) into a bullied stutterer and the little brother Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) into a nightmarish brat. How does Artie propose to turn the kids around in the right direction? Bribery and threats, mostly, but he does it with love.
Predictably, all works out for the best in the end, with a little father/daughter rapprochement as a bonus, and lots of gooey good feelings to wash off when you get back home. But the only thing that’s likely to stick in your mind, strangely, is the one scene that does work comically and emotionally — though it probably will sound completely appalling.
Here’s the setup: Artie escorts chronically constipated young Barker to the men’s room when the urge suddenly overtakes him. And proceeds to sit in the stall with him, crooning the boy’s potty lullaby: “Come Out, Come Out, Mr. Doody.”
Cringe-worthy? You might think so, but there’s something about it that works. For once, Crystal isn’t wisecracking and there’s an expression on his fact that suggests he’s enjoying the tenderness of the moment as well as its ridiculousness. Absurd as it is, for a moment “Parental Guidance” rings true and the result is the first genuine laugh in the film.