Parental Guidance is the type of movie everyone will vaguely enjoy. From six-year-old kids to eighty-five-year-old women, it should be an acceptable experience at the cinema for practically all, regardless of age, gender, race or socioeconomic status. That’s probably why it’s being released on Christmas. When extended families head to the theaters, Parental Guidance’s somewhat warming, ass-extended hug will do just fine for aunts, cousins and teenagers alike.
Unfortunately, “do just fine” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. In fact, just as I can’t imagine anyone hating Parental Guidance, I also can’t imagine a single human being finding it to be anything better than a check plus. It’s quite possibly the blandest bite of white rice 2012 had to offer. From airport security jokes about turning to the left and coughing to riffs about old people not knowing how to tweet, it’s seriously lacking in the original thought department, and its plot is riddled with predictable turns and tired clichés.
The basic premise follows two grandparents named Artie (Billy Crystal) and Diane (Bette Midler) who get called out of the bullpen to watch their grandchildren for a few days while their daughter (Marisa Tomei) and son-in-law (Tom Everett Scott) go to a work conference. During their stay, they hope to build actual relationships with the little ones that go deeper than the generic holiday time they’ve spent before, but, of course, their time winds up descending into a mess of wacky hijinks and surface level complaints about parenting styles.
There is more than enough room in the cinematic landscape every year for one or more intelligent commentaries on parenting styles. Like going to prom or getting married, disapproving of how our parents raised us or how our children are raising their kids are experiences an overwhelming majority of people go through. There’s an inherent amount of honest truth and hilarity inside there, but Parental Guidance doesn’t have the aggressive and daring spirit to exploit either one of those areas. It’s not ballsy enough to let Artie or Diane actually rip into the children or each other with any hilarious venom, and it’s not astute enough to let Artie, Diane and their daughter have more than a few relatively brief conversations about what should be or should have been done differently.
Consequently, it’s just sort of funny and touching in the same way as it sort of uses its cast. There’s no reason why a movie with Billy Crystal and Bette Midler as an old married couple should only be moderately funny, and there’s no reason why a mother-daughter relationship between Midler and Tomei should only be moderately affecting. If you’ve got the pieces in place, you might as well use them. You might as well use their talent to set the bar higher than the safe zone of mediocrity.
When Parental Guidance works, it lets the natural charm of Crystal and his cohorts come through. It lets them be funny and interact like real human beings. When it doesn’t, it contrives idiotic scenarios involving places like the X Games and the symphony to turn everyone into caricatures in an attempt to manufacture tired laughs.
Parental Guidance definitely wasn’t the best way I used 105 minutes this week, but it also definitely wasn’t the worst. If you’re really excited about seeing anything else this Christmas, skip Parental Guidance and go to that. If you want to go to the movies with a large group and are interested in making sure everyone has a passable time, then this should be at the top of your list.