What if you blended Parenthood and Modern Family, sucked the soul, charm and the good acting out of them, added some jokes about vomit, urination and defecation, and made a movie about intergenerational conflicts with the sloppy remains? You’d have Parental Guidance. And you’d be sad.
Artie (Billy Crystal) and Diane Decker (Bette Midler) fly from Fresno to Atlanta to babysit their three grandchildren for a few days; their only child, Alice (Marisa Tomei) and her husband Phil Simmons (Tom Everett Scott) desperately need a getaway. Phil’s parents, the good grandparents, aren’t available, otherwise Alice never would have asked Artie and Diane because her parents have been vocal about their disdain for her parenting style.
She’s a modern mother, who deprives her three offspring of sugar and imposes the rule of affirmations. Instead of “no,” she says “consider the consequences.” For every putdown the three young Simmons impose upon each other, they are told to then give three “put-ups.” This doesn’t seem like the worst way to live, but Artie thinks it is silly. He himself is the kind of parent who has no idea that his daughter has been web designing for ESPN for the last five years, even though he himself has long been employed in the sports world (announcing games for the Fresno Grizzlies and dreaming of becoming the voice of the San Francisco Giants).
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In keeping with the holiday spirit, here is an attempt to use Alice’s rules for putdowns vs. put-ups. Only Billy Crystal and his doctors know exactly what he has done to his face, but the fact that he now looks like a skinned grape is so distracting that most of his lines, even the 25 percent that are funny, tend to get lost. Tomei valiantly tries to compensate for the lack of mobility in his and Midler’s faces by moving all her features at once: the brow furrows, the mouth twists, the nose wrinkles. Sometimes Alice seems drunk, but Tomei’s willingness to appear with frizzy and/or windblown hair throughout the film is brave. Third put-up: Alice wears a very cute pair of shoes.
Forget about the affirmations; pick-ups are too elusive, largely because Andy Fickman (You Again) is such an astonishingly clumsy director. During a scene where the youngest Simmons, Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) confronts his supposed demons by throwing his imaginary friend, Karl the kangaroo, into oncoming traffic, Fickman hits every wrong note possible, both in terms of narrative and visuals. The driver of the car that hits Karl is a chattering Asian stereotype we’ve already endured once and aren’t happy to see again. A cop pulls up and the screen inexplicably fills with a close-up of his headlight. Alice arrives to deliver a shrill invective to her father, who might be upset, although it’s hard to tell with the immovable face.
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At least the kids are cute. As Barker, Breitkopf handles his role as chief brat with relish. Joshua Rush, who plays his older brother—the one with the stutter that presumably Alice’s over-zealous approach to parenting is responsible for—is sweet. And as the eldest Simmons child, Harper, the very game Bailee Madison (Just Go With It) works harder than anyone else in the cast. There is an idiotic scene where Artie and Diane instigate a game of kick-the-can in the backyard to get these over-scheduled, sugar-deprived children to enjoy life. The appeal to nostalgia seems off, since Artie and Diane are supposed to be in their early 60s rather than children of the depression and moreover, their version of the game includes no “it,” no “jail,” just kicking a can as if it were a soccer ball. But Madison makes it look as though Harper is having the time of her life, showing impressive dedication even as the famous grownups around her, with the exception of Tomei, seem committed only to getting their paychecks.
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Movies like Parental Guidance (and money makers like Four Christmases, Christmas with the Kranks, Surviving Christmas, Fred Claus just to name a few) suggest a consensus in Hollywood that what audiences desire at Christmas time are sloppily constructed movies about dysfunctional families, featuring big name actors. They’re supposed to make us feel better about our own families, presumably. And I can’t deny I did feel fonder of my own family afterward, mostly because I know none of them would ever make me sit through Parental Guidance.