The family-friendliest movie comedy this holiday season is also the sappiest and schmaltziest. And thanks to Billy Crystal, the shtickiest.
Parental Guidance is a mild-mannered riff on parenting, then and now. It contrasts the top-down/career-first mentality of one generation with the coddled "nurturing" of today, but never takes a stand on which is better.
Basically, it's a vehicle for Crystal, and to a lesser degree Bette Midler, to riff on the spoiled, overindulged and sometimes uptight kids their kid is raising.
Artie (Crystal) is a minor league baseball announcer who never got to his dream job, covering San Francisco Giants games. He's content to make homespun wisecracks in front of the mike for the Fresno Grizzlies. Until they lay him off for being not hip, not social media savvy.
"I'll tweet! I'll make whatever noise you want!"
His retired "weather girl" wife, Diane (Midler), interrupts her pole-dance aerobics class to comfort him and listen to his lies about how young he "feels."
"You're 38? Paint the house!"
Daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) is a web designer living in Atlanta with husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) in the totally computerized house Phil designed.
Their kids — 12, 8 and 5 — have play dates, ball games and rehearsals. Violinist daughter Harper (Bailee Madison) would discover boys if she weren't stressing over a big audition that sets up her Berlin Philharmonic life plan. Turner (Joshua Rush) is a bullied stammerer whose little league doesn't keep score, denying him the chance to excel at anything. And Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) is a mop-topped terror with an imaginary kangaroo friend.
Into this world come "the other grandparents," the West Coast couple that never sees them because Artie has been all about the job all his life. They're not the first choice, but Phil and Alice have a get-away planned — if only Alice can let go.
Whatever Artie and Diane did with Alice isn't good enough for Alice's kids. She takes their finicky dinner orders, by text. The kids aren't allowed sugar, are ferried hither and yon to appointments — touchy-feely speech therapy for Turner, violin lessons from a Russian "tiger mom" for Harper. Tofu mom Alice never lets them hear the word "no."
Crystal delivers tepidly caustic rants, Midler invokes the occasional inappropriate life lesson to Harper and Tomei struggles to find anything fun about playing a smothering mother. The laughs are telegraphed, with director Andy Fickman (The Game Plan) clearing the decks to make every laugh line a stale showcase moment for his stars.
A Billy-and-Bette duet of Who Wrote the Book of Love is cute, but the setup is so sluggish it has no life. A quicker, more cluttered movie would have been funnier.
There are sparks between generations, but with the exception of Madison, the child actors are in over their heads and the adults seem as if they've just met.
At least the sentimental stuff works. And the toilet jokes.