From a distance, Parental Guidance looks like your usual family holiday movie with its adult cast interacting with small children in ways that seem embarrassing. It does run on a formula that has been used to death in movies – that of adults having a nightmare of a time trying to wrangle kids who have far more energy than they do – and you might expect it to act as an advertisement for the latest cool toy all the kids will want for Christmas. However, the movie turns out to be quite a surprise, as it features some very funny moments as well as ones that will warm the hearts of even the most jaded moviegoers.
Billy Crystal stars as Artie Decker, a sports announcer for a minor league baseball team who still has aspirations to work with the San Francisco Giants. Reality comes crashing down, however, when he is fired from his job by a boss who tells him that he needs to get with the times and make use of Facebook and Twitter. Artie’s complete lack of understanding of these social platforms leads to one of the movie’s funniest scenes, illustrating that Artie now lives in a world he can sadly no longer compete with.
Fast forward a few months later, when Artie and his wife Diane (Bette Midler) decide to travel to Atlanta to babysit their three grand kids when the parents take a much needed vacation. Their daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) and her husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) live in a technologically advanced home which more or less resembles the one from Paranormal Activity 4, with that automated female voice alerting its occupants to when the front door is open. Looking at this house with its myriad of computer screens and solar panels, we already know that Artie and Diane are going to be in trouble.
Early on, Parental Guidance appears to simply rely on a lot of sophomoric gags involving bodily functions and so forth. Things get off to an uneasy start as Artie gives his grandchildren super soakers, and the youngest takes aim at his crotch and makes it look like Artie wet his pants. We have all seen this before, but things get better very quickly as we start to see how these three kids are unique in their own ways.
The young actors cast as the kids are a large part of the film’s success, and they all manage to hold their own with established movie stars like Crystal and Midler. Bailee Madison plays Alice’s and Phil’s only daughter Harper, a girl struggling to master the violin and has become tightly wound up about a future she is not sure she wants. Madison does a good job or portraying her character’s conflicts between wanting to achieve success and wanting to have fun, and she shares some strong moments with Tomei, who is wonderful as Alice.
Kyle Harrison Breitkopf plays Barker, the youngest child of the bunch, and he shares crack comic timing with Crystal in scenes where he is trapped in his car seat. The negotiations between these two are cheerfully amusing, and Breitkopf deserves credit for not making Barker the usual annoying brat that occupies movies like these days.
But the most impressive of the bunch is Joshua Rush who plays the middle child, Turner. Having to deal with a stutter that makes him the easy target of bullies, Rush wins us over because we can see in his eyes that things will get better for him, and we love it when they do. The moments he shares with Crystal are especially sweet, especially when Crystal introduces him to one of baseball history’s greatest moments. This leads to a great scene towards the movie’s end that may have you teary-eyed with joy.
Director Andy Fickman’s resume has not been impressive up to now, with movies like She’s The Man, The Game Plan, and Race to Witch Mountain all bearing his name. But what those movies, as well as Parental Guidance, show is that he is both great and enthusiastic when it comes to working with kids. Fickman keeps things entertaining throughout and never lets the energy sag for a second, and he manages to wring laughs out of situations we have seen many times before.
Crystal does not appear to have aged a day since the times of When Harry Met Sally and City Slickers, and he remains as funny as ever. The scenes where he performs sports announcing display the sharp comic timing he is known for, and he still has the skill to make us laugh at the oldest of jokes. But one can also tell that he put a lot of heart into the movie, as he is a grandfather in real life. He shares a special scene with Tomei towards the end where he talks about her kids in such a genuine way. Moments in movies like this are usually cringe inducing, but the emotions displayed in the scene are unexpectedly sincere.
One could argue that Crystal and Midler are just playing themselves here, but that is fine by me. They look like they had a blast making this movie, and that fun should carry over to the audience this comedy is made for.
Parental Guidance is by no means a great movie and, like the recently released The Guilt Trip, is formulaic to say the least. But unlike The Guilt Trip, it never feels overly bland, and the filmmakers had fun playing around with family comedy conventions to the point where it does not feel like business as usual. Thanks to a wonderful cast and Crystal’s good intentions, Parental Guidance is a much better movie than one might expect it to be.