To take a kindly view, "Parental Guidance," a dopey comedy about how generation gaps play out in parenting styles, could have been worse. It could have tried to get more mileage out of its old-people-can't-use-technology cliche. It could have had more jokes about small children needing to use the bathroom. It could have been longer. But make no mistake, "Parental Guidance" is a dog of a movie that stretches a half-hour's worth of situation comedy into feature length. It's mawkish, trite and written at the level of an episode of "The Nanny."
Billy Crystal and Bette Midler star as Artie and Diane, grandparents who are largely peripheral in the lives of their grandchildren. As Diane puts it, they're the "other grandparents," the ones whose photos aren't on the mantel. They get the chance to redeem themselves when their daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) and her husband, Phil (Tom Everett Scott) decide to take a vacation and invite Artie and Diane to watch their three children for a week.
Artie is reeling from the loss of his job as an announcer for a minor-league baseball team in Fresno. After a lifetime of following Artie around the country as he has pursued his dream of becoming a big-league broadcaster, Diane is ready to become a full-time grandparent. But the reality of looking after their grandchildren is less than idyllic because of the restrictions placed on their upbringing by their overprotective parents.
The child actors probably are the best thing about the movie. Harper (Bailee Madison) is believable as a wan, overachieving Type-A 12-year-old with a terror of disappointing her parents. Turner (Joshua Rush) does a good job as an awkward 10-year-old with a stutter that makes him the target of bullies. The firebrand, ginger-haired Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) wrings a few meager laughs out of his bladder-control issues.
Basically, the movie is a pastiche of scenes in which the blustery Mr. Crystal is popped into a stereotypically touchy-feely setting, like a Little League where no one wins or loses or a speech-therapy class in which children act out their anxieties rather than practice speaking. He keeps his mouth shut for as long as he can, until he can suffer no more and tells everyone how they did things back in his day -- usually with ruinous results. Yet the movie doesn't take a real interest in what they did back in the day. One brazenly inaccurate scene has the grandparents and grandchildren playing some kind of soccer with an empty soup can and calling it "kick the can." It makes no sense, except possibly as a bit of product placement for Swanson.
There's no Christmas hook to "Parental Guidance," but the studio probably hopes to get some box office from families wanting a good-natured, innocent movie that grandparents, parents and grandchildren can enjoy together. It's a nice idea, but "Parental Guidance" doesn't deliver.
TITLE: "Parental Guidance"
CREDITS: Directed by Andy Fickman. Written by Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse
RATING: PG, for a few moments of toilet humor
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS