Given the stellar show business careers of Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, you’re tempted to give them a pass for “Parental Guidance.” It’s one of those holiday films, which drift in like snow this time of year and are nearly always lame so no big deal.
And you didn’t really expect them to make “Bad Santa,” did you? But still it’s Billy Crystal and Bette Midler. Shouldn’t they demand sharper writing and direction?
You get the impression, especially in Crystal’s case, that some of the best lines and business come out of ad-libs. Perhaps not, but then these occasional bright spots are stranded in such a sea of mediocrity that nothing else explains them.
There are certainly worse movies out there at the moment and, yes, you can take the whole family to see “Parental Guidance.” Which means everyone will find something to like — occasionally.
But really — potty training, cake smearing, a groin punch, peeing and vomit jokes and all sort of misbehavior by adults and youngsters alike you’ve seen a million times before. Is that the best the wife-and-husband writing team of Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse can come up with for two show biz legends?
I’m sure there must be some computer software for screenwriting that can kick out a comedy script incorporating those elements in an afternoon.
Crystal and Midler play grandparents called in to babysit three grandkids by their reluctant daughter (Marisa Tomei). There is some estrangement between them but the film never really clarifies what has caused this.
The comedy set-up seems to be a clash of cultures between old-school parenting and a misguided new approach. In the latter, you never say no to a child but may so manage his life with all the “right” foods, therapists and politically correct games that he in effect has no choices to say no to.
So Crystal, a recently fired minor-league baseball announcer, is confronted with a grandson’s baseball game where no one is ever out — whatever would that do to a boy’s self-esteem? — and no one keeps score so as not to encourage an unwanted sense of competition among the boys.
“You mean there’s no agony of defeat?” cries Crystal. “Just the thrill of a tie!”
There may or may not be such a school of thought in modern childrearing, but it is so easily put down here that the film gets little comic energy from Crystal’s demolishing its precepts.
Another example is the granddaughter’s overly rigorous violin teacher played by Rhoda Griffis with a Russian accent as shrill as it is phony. This allows Midler a good comic line about that accent that rings hollow given its blatancy.
Director Andy Fickman (“Race to Witch Mountain”) moves things along in a serviceable manner without any personality or ever finding a comic soul in the proceedings.
Each child has a hang-up: The youngest, played by Kyle Harrison Breitkopf, has an imaginary friend, a kangaroo named Carl.
The daughter and eldest, played by that fine child actor Bailee Madison, is all but missing childhood due to violin practice. The middle child, Joshua Rush, gets saddled with a speech impediment and school bully.
You can pretty well guess that the grandparents, for all their mistakes and misdeeds, will solve those problems in a few days. So who needs therapists?
The ease with which all problems get resolved and the grandparents elevated back into the good grace of their daughter seem all too close to that boys’ baseball game. Why bother to keep score when the script keeps lobbing softballs over the plate for Crystal and Midler?
Opens: December 25, 2012 (20th Century Fox)
Production companies: Walden Media presents a Chernin Entertainment production
Cast: Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott, Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush, Kyle Harrison Breitkopf, Rhoda Griffis, Gedde Watanabe
Director: Andy Fickman
Screenwriters: Lisa Addario, Joe Syracuse
Producers: Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark,
Executive producer: Kevin Halloran
Director of photography: Dean Semler
Production designer: David J. Bomba
Music: Marc Shaiman
Costume designer: Genevieve Tyrrell
Editor: Kent Beyda
PG rating, 105 minutes