(by Dustin Putman
Seeing Billy Crystal (2002's "Analyze That") and Bette Midler (2008's "The Women") headline a studio comedy is like 1988 all over again, and that's meant as a compliment. They're both whizzes with line deliveries and, under the right circumstances, great fun to watch brashly do their thing, but the sinking suspicion as "Parental Guidance" plays out is that this project would have been a heck of a lot sharper and fiercer as an R-rated script. Because the edges must be softened for 2012 audiences, it is instead set up as a child-gloved, PG-rated family movie—and suffers the consequences. More often cloying than funny, the finished film is simply too sugar-coated for its own good. Article continues below
New school meets old school when helicopter parents Alice (Marisa Tomei) and Phil (Tom Everett Scott) head out of town on a business trip, leaving their kids—12-year-old over-achiever Harper (Bailee Madison), speech-impeded 8-year-old Turner (Joshua Rush), and rambunctious, imaginary friend-clad 5-year-old Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf)—with the "other" grandparents, Alice's minor league commentator father Artie Decker (Billy Crystal) and supportive mother Diane (Bette Midler). Diane jumps at the chance, hoping to spend some quality time with her grandchildren—living in Fresno, they've never even visited Alice's new home in Atlanta—but it isn't long before she and Artie, still smarting after having just lost his longtime job, realize their loose parenting methods are no longer the accepted norm that they were thirty years ago.
"Parental Guidance" is done in by a preening, slap-dash directorial style by Andy Fickman (2010's "You Again") that calls for the performers to overact, too frequently exaggerating the smallest of actions like peering through blinds and getting hopped up on sugar from eating cake. There also are several baser sights that could have been done without—Artie projectile vomiting on a Little Leaguer comes to mind—most of them hitting their comic aims about as pleasantly as the sounds of acorns falling on a tin roof. When Fickman pulls back and doesn't try so hard, allowing his actors to do their stuff and mimic actual human beings, the film is all the better for it and has some useful things to say about parent-child bonds.
Appearing for the first time together, Billy Crystal and Bette Midler are an amiable team who, in their quieter scenes together, paint an affecting portrait of an aging married couple who have always been there for each other even when they're driving each other crazy. It's been at least ten years since either one has been the lead in a film, but they haven't lost an ounce of their charisma. It is especially nice to see Midler back in her wheelhouse, despite sometimes being clearly forced to hold back. Nevertheless, when she tells Harper's tactless music instructor, "If you ever speak to my granddaughter like that again, there will be nothing left of you but red hair and an accent," it's the kind of on-target zinger that reminds of Midler's special brand of talent and pizzazz. As daughter Alice, Marisa Tomei (2011's "The Ides of March") plays her part as a high-strung caricature half the time and as a more realistic portrayal the rest. She grows more comfortable with the tone as she goes, by the end sharing a nice moment with Crystal that speaks to the relationship they once had when she was a child versus the one she has with him as an adult. As eldest grandchild Harper, prolific child talent Bailee Madison (2011's "Just Go with It") is likewise at her best when she isn't instructed to play beneath her intelligence. There's a lot of that going on here.
With a bolder, more satiric screenplay to follow, "Parental Guidance" might have stood a chance. The cast is an able one, and themes involving the ever-evolving world as it relates to the young and older demographics is worth discussing. The script that was followed by Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse (2007's "Surf's Up"), on the other hand, feels watered-down and even sloppy on occasion. Barker's insistence on calling Artie Fartie isn't funny the first time it's said, but is repeated another fifteen times and driven straight into the ground. A disastrous visit to the symphony, with Artie disturbing the musicians while racing through the aisles to catch Barker is equally cringe-inducing. For all that is wrong with the movie, however, it's difficult to hate it. Crystal and Midler class it up as much as they can and the movie's central message about not taking your loved ones for granted is simple and sweet. It's just such a shame "Parental Guidance" is otherwise so darn dumb.