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May 10, 2013

Parental Guidance

by Franz Patrick


Parental Guidance (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Having not taken a vacation as a couple for five years, exhausted Alice (Marisa Tomei) and Phil (Tom Everett Scott) are in desperate need for someone to take care of their three children for a week. Phil calls his parents but it turns out they have made prior plans. Alice, who is not very close to her parents because they often disagree about parenting, telephones her mom and dad, Diane (Bette Midler) and Artie (Billy Crystal), and the former half is ecstatic. Diane sees it as a perfect opportunity to bond with her grandchildren especially since they have not seen each other in over a year. Artie surrenders to the idea.

“Parental Guidance,” written by Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse, goes for all sorts of laughs, from disgusting bodily projectiles to clever double-sided compliments that pack a wallop, so it is easy to appeal to the entire family. As a whole, its ability to tickle is largely hit-or-miss. When it is funny, its tickles linger but when it isn’t, it is deserving of groans for trying too hard to make something out of nothing.

Each character on screen has a specific personality or quirk. When it comes to the children, Harper (Bailee Madison) is the high achiever, Turner (Joshua Rush) is the stutterer, and Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) has an imaginary friend that happens to be a kangaroo. They are brats at times but they are not completely unbearable so the eventual changes the screenplay require them to go through do not feel too forced. Each gets enough time to spend with both grandparents, but I liked that a kid becomes closer to one more than the other. It is like that in real life.

The type of parenting in the smart house’s household frustrated me at times and this is a good thing. I liked that I had a strong reaction to it. Call me traditional but I scoff at the “modern” parenting these days. It feels too lax. For example, this is a family that employs techniques that include telling a child “Consider the consequences” instead of a more authoritative “Don’t.” It is not a surprise, at least to me, that the parents are tired and the kids have so many problems. I was brought up in a family with defined rules and I think I turned out okay. While it seems jokey here, I have met and know parents like Alice and Phil and the children they have are… incorrigibly wretched. Not always but often.

There is a subplot involving Artie being fired from his job as a baseball announcer. His employer thinks he is not “modern” enough: he does not have a Facebook, owns not one app, and does not even know what “hashtagging” means. The termination hurts him because his job is his passion and I would like to have seen his sadness communicated more deeply. There is a wonderful scene between Artie and Turner that involves closing their eyes and listening to the New York Giants’ victory over Brooklyn Dodgers in ’51. There is a real connection there that goes unstated and it made me miss my late grandpa. I wished we had at least one chance to talk about his passion, his career in law enforcement.

Directed by Andy Fickman, the stars of “Parental Guidance” are, without a doubt, the grandparents played by Crystal and Midler. Their exchanges are funny and at times corny, but it is easy to recognize why Artie and Diane have stayed married over the years. Nothing in or about the picture is especially deep but it is occasionally funny and rarely dull.

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