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Crystal and Midler Get on their Schtick and Liven Up This Formulaic Family Comedy
on January 3, 2013
***This review may contain spoilers***
The trailers advertising "Parental Guidance" (hereafter PG) were not only unpromising, but borderline appalling. It emphasized the tired, painful slapstick and saccharine sentiment of so many other formulaic family comedies, that I was determined to avoid it. But, visiting my mother and deciding to take in a movie before lunch at Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse, we decided upon PG because it was the only movie that had subject matter my Mom (not particularly keen on hobbits, 40-somethings, or even Lincoln) was interested in. After seeing it, we were pleasantly (if surprisingly) entertained, despite the dilapidated old "Clash of the Generations" plot. Our amusement was largely due to those reliably schticky comedy workhorses Billy Crystal and Bette Midler.
Crystal and Midler play fairly (but not completely) old-fashioned Artie and Diane Decker, parents to Type-A, harried upper-class daughter Alice Decker Simmons (Marisa Tomei). Alice is married to Phil Simmons (Tom Everett Scott) a basically easygoing engineer who, like Rick Moranis's Wayne Szalinski in the "Honey, I.." movies has converted their home into a technological, computerized, self-sustaining "house of tomorrow". Their children are Harper (Bailee Madison), who is as neurotically driven as her mother, Turner (Joshua Rush) her more levelheaded, technologically savvy brother who has a stuttering problem, and certainly not least, the mischievous, irreverent, red-haired Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) whose best friend is an invisible kangaroo named Carl (not Harvey).
Unlike the paternal grandparents, Artie and Diane have not seen their grandchildren in months, if not years. They are "the other grandparents". But they get a chance to bond with the tykes when Alice and Phil leave for a week for a scientific convention and, somewhat reluctantly, call on the "out-of-it" folks to baby-sit. As they say, hilarity (amazingly) ensues.
Artie and Diane, although sharp and game, have their work cut out for them. Besides the aformentioned baggage (and yuppified names!) each grandchild carries, and the mechanized Jetson-like home, Artie and Diane have to contend with the permissive parenting their charges are used to and their high-maintenance demands (e.g., each kid gets his own meal at suppertime, and Barker doesn't like his food touching other food). Furthermore, Artie is despondent over his firing from his minor league baseball announcer job, and he fears telling Alice. All sorts of slapstick hijicks, misadventures, and misunderstandings ensue. Examples, Artie has to bribe the bratty Barker to do anything, Artie's advice to Turner to stand up to the bullies making fun of his speech impediment gets the kid a shiner - from the bully's sister, the kids get an amped-up "sugar high" from some forbidden birthday cake, Artie protests at a little league baseball game that has no strikes, timeouts, or scoring and gets a bat in the crotch for his troubles, Barker gets indelible day-glo paint on Artie's face just before Harper's violin recital, and of course Artie sneaks off with Barker to an X-Games announcer's interview where Barker's escape and urination ruins an X-games skateboard stunt (and is broadcast nationally) as well as Artie's job prospects. Diane has a confrontation with Harper's demanding, martinet East European violin instructor, calling her "comrade". The comedy of errors keeps on coming.
In the hands of inexperienced actors, PG would be a groan-fest. But in Crystal's and Midler's capable, vaudevillian, borscht-belt hands, they are surprisingly funny. Crystal's cynical comments and one-liners wryly commenting on the insanity of their grandkids' lives, even more than the predictable slapstick, keep the laughs coming, because we agree with their disapproval of the grandkids' overwrought, permissive, but also perfectionist lifestyle. Even so, they love their grandkids and incrementally not only get to know them better, but also to overcome their handicaps and neuroses. At first shocked at Artie's and Diane's interference, Alice gradually gets reconciled to their ways of doing things, and to them as general. In unrealistic but satisfying sitcom fashion, everyone's issues get resolved and everybody's happy.
Yes, PG is unsophisticated and predictable and even a bit low-brow. But Crystal's and Midler's tried-and-true comic personae wring out the laughs and make you feel reasonably good.