Parental Guidance is ultimately okay, not terrible: small things add up high enough to prevent what could’ve been the next Little Fockers from being painful to watch.

The Parental Guidance synopsis sounds like an (unimaginative) executive’s pitch for a high-concept yuckfest pairing two senior citizen comedians who are past their prime. Thirty-year veteran minor league baseball commentator Artie Decker (Billy Crystal) is forced into retirement – re: declared obsolete and fired –  just before he and his peppy ex-weathergirl wife Diane (Bette Midler) commit to babysitting their grandchildren for a week.

That, in theory, will offer their uptight daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) and her blithe husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) time alone together, while the latter receives an award for his new domestic-living technological breakthrough (essentially, Siri for the entire house). Do hijinks ensue, once old-fashioned Artie and Diane clash with their Generation Z grandchildren (raised on their mom’s 21st-century PC parenting methods)? Spoiler: yep.

Parental Guidance uses the feature-length sitcom narrative format, complete with episodic developments, farcical humor and a third act that ties everything together (with the requisite life-affirming lessons). It’s a lightweight piece of family-friendly fluff in every meaning of the term. However, it’s also surprisingly sweet-tempered, has little interest in pushing the boundaries of its PG Rating, avoids overstaying its welcome – and is (shockingly) thoughtful about select aspects of modern American life and the cross-generational gap. And yes, that’s despite multiple gags involving Crystal’s crotch and a kid with bathroom issues

Billy Crystal and Bette Midler in ‘Parental Guidance’

Flimsy sitcom comedy frequently suffers from the writers’ (lack of) understanding about real-life material they are exaggerating for broad laughs. Parental Guidance benefits from how screenwriting couple Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse (Surf’s Up) possess a genuine comprehension of what actual longtime married people are like. Here, Crystal is the harmless wise-cracker who appreciates traditional Americana values; Midler is a loyal housewife and forward-thinker, who embraces the changes in ordinary living (ex. we’re introduced to her leading a pole dancing class). These are caricatures, no doubt, but being based on relatable archetypes that exist in the real world makes them feel like more than something a screenwriter cooked up to get cheap laughs.

Crystal and Midler have a relaxed chemistry that allows them to interact as though they have indeed been married for several decades. Their characters do not have to suffer contrived conflicts like infidelity; though, their pop cultural cluelessness is often over-played (as you might expect). Tomei jumps head-first into what begins as a thankless role – the neurotic helicopter parent – but evolves into something (a bit) more satisfying. However, Scott is stuck as a bland supportive husband; it’s a variation on the usual paper-thin domestic wife stereotype, but (unfortunately) just as disposable.

Kid-actors Kyle Harrison Breitkopf, Bailee Madison and Joshua Rush each get their own side-plot; moreover, like the adults, the humor comes from their individual idiosyncrasies (not being allowed to eat sugar, having OCD tendencies, etc.), which allows them to possess actual discernible personalities. The same goes for Gedde Watanabe as restaurant owner Mr. Cheng; at first, he threatens to come off as a racist stereotype, but the joke gracefully shifts to him being just kind of an odd guy (who’s way too attached to Breitkopf’s imaginary kangaroo). No surprise, most of this humor is either too airy or kid-oriented to appeal to most people who’re above a certain age; still, they go by so quickly as to occasionally be amusing (and avoid being obnoxious in the process).

The (wacky) kids and their grandparents in ‘Parental Guidance’

Director Andy Fickman (The Game Plan, Race to Witch Mountain) and editor Kent Beyda (Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear) seemingly know better than to assume any one punchline is going to land. Hence, every scene and cut move at such a brisk pace that even the lamest of jokes (be forewarned, there’s a healthy amount of those) fly by without being offensive; the same goes for the by-the-beats plot, as the film’s gentle mood makes the predictable trajectory easier to take. Similarly, the cinematography from Dean Semler (Click, Date Night) incorporates a handful of expressive touches (like a ‘Vertigo-shot’) that elevate Parental Guidance above its generic movie comedy pedigree.

That, in a nutshell, summarizes why Parental Guidance is ultimately okay, not terrible: small things add up high enough to prevent what could’ve been the next Little Fockers from being painful to watch (or feeling cynical in construction). Those looking for a theatrical showing that has something to offer everyone in the family over the winter holiday (or, at least, will go down easy with them), Parental Guidance is a reasonable choice; otherwise, this flick’s best left for rental or cable viewing.

Here is the trailer for Parental Guidance:

Parental Guidance is Rated PG for some rude humor. It is now showing in theaters around the U.S.

Our Rating:

2.5 out of 5
(Fairly Good)