On the scale of blandly idiotic studio comedies, “Parental Guidance” falls somewhere south of “intermittently funny.” Still, it’s several notches above “makes you feel the passing of each precious second” or “better to stare at the fire exit sign than at the screen,” and that counts for something, right?
Say what you will about the underrated “The Guilt Trip,” another current pairing of a nebbishy comic and a diva of a certain age, that movie at least offers two recognizable human beings of different generations meeting in the middle and learning something from each other.
This time, the nebbish is Billy Crystal, the diva is Bette Midler, and as far as the movie’s concerned, every single thing these two know about child-rearing is right, and everything the younger generation does is, at best, misguided.
The youngster in this case is Alice (Marisa Tomei), who’s reluctant to ask her parents Artie (Crystal) and Diane (Midler) to come babysit when she and her husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) need to go to Hilton Head for a business trip. But with Phil’s folks off on a cruise, and Phil and Alice desperate for some time away from their progeny, Artie and Diane fly from Fresno to Atlanta to help out. (The movie’s Atlanta resembles the one I grew up in, only mine had black people.)
Things get off on an awkward foot when Diane sees all the photos of the kids -- perfectionist violinist Harper (Bailee Madison of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”), stutterer Turner (Joshua Rush) and ginger terror Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) -- with Phil’s mom and dad, making her realize that she and Artie are “the other grandparents.”
While Diane launches a campaign to make her grandkids love her, Artie immediately violates all of Alice’s hyperprotective rules for the kids, from what they can eat (tofu, almond milk, no sugar) to how they communicate (Alice and Phil say “Consider the consequences” instead of “No,” and so on).
The strained screenplay by Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse (“Surf’s Up”) then delivers a barrage of Artie and Diane’s old-school parenting butting up against the straw man of Alice’s ridiculously New Age methods, with lots of crazy-kid slapstick as well. This yields the occasional funny moment -- a sugar-crazed Harper shovels a handful of Carvel cake in her mouth and bellows at Alice, “You lied to me! Yogurt is not the same as ice cream!” -- but the basic premise is that, as messy as the grandparents’ methods might seem, their ways ultimately win out in the end.
Take, for example, Artie’s encounter with Turner’s speech therapist, whose methods aren’t focused around having the kids actually talk. When he challenges her, she points out that her Ph.D. in speech therapy from Yale trumps his decades of experience as a baseball announcer, which would be a great put-down except that, by the end of the movie, it’s Artie and his MP3s of classic baseball moments, and not the touchy-feely therapy, that cures the kid’s stutter.
Stupid Ph.D.s! What do they know?
There’s also a go-nowhere subplot about Artie trying to get a gig covering the X Games for ESPN. Bad enough that the storyline calls to mind the recent, awful “Playing for Keeps,” but the scene just winds up being another way for the movie to mock These Kids Today. (By this point, we’ve already seen Artie get fired from his radio gig for not Tweeting enough, plus a series of jokes about Phil and Alice’s fully-automated house that never seem to reach a punchline.)
It would be easier to write off “Parental Guidance” in toto if there weren’t glimmers of a better movie underneath. Crystal comes off less smarmy than usual, Midler tones her life-of-the-party shtick way, way down, and there’s even a scene at the end that suggests the possibility of some sweet chemistry between Crystal and Tomei.
That unravels, of course, when you realize that the scene is about Artie asking Alice what he and Diane did to make their daughter keep them at a distance, and the movie has no good answer for his question.
Parents, it would appear, can’t get a break: they’re the villains of most teen movies, and now they’ve got grandpa comedies sticking it to them at the other end.