By Chaz Lipp

Certain movies inherently come with lower expectations attached. Maybe it’s unfair to have preconceived notions about any film, but I don’t think anyone expects every movie to be a groundbreaking masterpiece. Take Parental Guidance for example. Recently a friend asked me how I could possibly “bad mouth” a film like Schindler’s List (recently issued for the first time on Blu-ray), then turn around and defend a cutesy, predictable family comedy as being better than its reputation suggests. It’s simple: two very different kinds of movies attempting to do two very different things. It’s the same as complaining about a poorly cooked steak at a fine restaurant, but praising the meatloaf at a greasy spoon diner. (Besides, anyone who read my take on Schindler’s should be able to clearly see I didn’t “bad mouth” it.)

Andy Fickman directed Parental Guidance, which hit theaters on Christmas Day, 2012. Fickman doesn’t have a particularly distinguished filmography, having previously directed the so-so Amanda Bynes vehicle She’s the Man (2006) and the utterly boring ensemble comedy You Again (2010). Parental Guidance’s prized asset is Billy Crystal, who co-produced in addition to starred. Crystal has not been especially visible in lead roles lately, confining himself primarily to voice roles since 2002’s Analyze That. For today’s younger audiences, he’s a relic (if they even know him at all). But in the prime of my youth, Crystal was one of the premiere comic actors in Hollywood, his talents best exemplified by When Harry Met Sally and City Slickers. He was also great during his initial early ‘90s run as Oscar host.

If it seems like I’m beating around the bush, it’s only because I do acknowledge that anyone who says Parental Guidance is predictable cinematic junk food is not wrong. But sometimes junk food is comfort food, and for fans of Crystal you just might find yourself enjoying this trifle too. Crystal and Bette Midler play Artie and Diane Decker, estranged grandparents of their daughter Alice’s (Marisa Tomei) three kids, Harper (Bailee Madison), Turner (Joshua Rush), and Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf). After Artie gets fired by the minor league baseball team for whom he does play-by-play, the Decker’s decide to reconnect with their grandkids when Alice and her husband Phil Simmons (Tom Everett Scott) need babysitters while they’re out of town.

The expected jokes about out-of-touch seniors come rolling in fast and furious and the Simmons kids try to relate to their technology-challenged grandparents. It doesn’t help that Phil is a tech wizard whose has rigged their home with “smart house” programming that turns the place into one big iPhone of sorts. Artie is surprised to learn that his daughter has been doing contract work with ESPN and finagles his way into an audition for the X Games (Tony Hawk makes a brief cameo; Artie has no idea who he is). Among the film’s modest, low key charms is witnessing Artie managing to impress at the audition with his sharp wit, even as he wings it with no prior knowledge of skateboarding. Sadly, in one of the film’s biggest missteps, this plotline is more or less abandoned in favor of a hasty climatic crisis involving the children, their parents, and Artie and Diane.

If you’re in the mood for extremely light and frothy cinematic comfort food, or if you need something that’s safe and inoffensive for kids (or elderly family members) to watch, Parental Guidance is far more effective than some of the more vitriolic reviews might have you believe. I’ll probably never watch it again, but it went down easy enough the first time. Midler sort of coasts through her part, though she does come to life during her one song-and-dance number, duetting with Crystal for a cringe-inducing “Book of Love.” Tomei and the kids are good natured, but its Crystal who makes us feel something (even if it’s ultimately just a twinge of emotion). Clearly the material meant something to him. Even if only a modicum of that emotion manages to break through the corny gags and easy sentiment, it’s just enough to make this worth a look.
Chaz Lipp

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