Every family’s worst nightmare
Parental Guidance is one of the best-named movies of the year. Whether you are a parent or have parents (or both), it offers up a friendly reminder of the important role the older generation plays.
If you have parents, call them up (it’s that time of year, after all) and ask them what Billy Crystal was doing back in the day. I’ll remind you: Throw Momma from the Train, When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers and some fine standup. Bette Midler was in Beaches, and Oscar-nominated in For the Boys. Now they co-star in this movie.
If you are a parent, ask yourself: Do you want your children’s comic development to be stunted by the likes of pee jokes, barf jokes and baseball-bat-to-the-groin jokes that punctuate this movie? Or by a film whose best running gag is that Crystal’s character, Artie Decker, gets nicknamed Fartie by his obnoxious grandson? It took two writers to come up with that?
The premise of the film is equally simple. Harried parents Alice and Phil (Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott) are offered a corporate-retreat getaway. They call her parents, Artie and Diane (Crystal and Midler), to look after the kids while they’re away.
Diane jumps at the opportunity, and reminds her husband that grandparenting is a second chance. (True, but playing grandparents? Not so much.) Artie balks, but gamely follows Diane’s lead. A secondary plot point is that he has just been fired as the on-air announcer for a minor-league baseball team — call it Trouble with the Verb — and wants to get back in the game. He still cherishes a 35-year-old dream to work for the Giants.
The three children, apparently named after Santa’s lesser reindeer — Barker, Turner and Harper — have a Mega-Freud of neuroses among them, which is odd for kids so Jung. The eldest, 12-yearown Harper, is a violin prodigy, torn between her desire to practise and her recent discovery of boys. Turner stutters and gets bullied for it. Barker’s best friend is an imaginary kangaroo. Don’t even get me started on the parents, whose house is a futuristic abode with artificial intelligence. They refuse to refuse their children, telling them “use your words” and “consider the consequences” instead of such simplicities as “No.” Artie, old enough to remember corporal punishment and the ’52 World Series with equal clarity, does a slow burn at this nouveau-parenting style.
Left in charge of the children, grandma and grandpa mess up in messily predictable ways, many involving bathroom breaks. (Note I didn’t say bathroom humour, which would imply something funny.)
Cake is eaten; sugar-highs are had; Crystal gets shot in the pants with a water gun; Midler gets to sing a duet; and both of them run afoul of speech therapists, little league coaches and a music teacher who, being younger than 80, don’t share their views on education and nurturing. Also, Crystal can’t figure out how to unbuckle a child’s car seat.
Under the guidance of director Andy Fickman (Race to Witch Mountain), lessons are learned. Perhaps the most important is that the adult stars, who do the best they can with the material, should stick to animated voice work (Midler was in Cats & Dogs, Crystal in the upcoming Monsters University) until they can find less demeaning projects.
And it’s not often that I single out a studio, but it’s worth noting that Parental Guidance was co-produced by Walden Media. Founded in 2001 with a charter that includes making movies out of children’s literature, Walden’s films include Holes, Bridge to Terabithia, three Chronicles of Narnia films and the excellent (though poorly received) City of Ember. Parental Guidance is hardly fit company. Think of the children! Or at least their parents.