Parental Guidance is an engaging comedy that bridges multiple generation gaps, making it that rare movie that grandparents, their kids, and their kids can enjoy. Directed with more warmth than art by Andy Fickman, the film is just endearing enough to forgive it its contrivances.
Artie and Diane (Billy Crystal and Bette Midler) are a Fresno, Calif., couple whose nest has been empty since Alice (Marisa Tomei), their only child, left for college. She is now married to Phil (Tom Everett Scott), lives in Atlanta, and has three children. The firstborn, Harper (Bailee Madison) is a high-strung overachiever. Turner (Joshua Rush), a stutterer, is bully bait. Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf), the baby, has an intrusive imaginary friend.
When Alice very reluctantly calls her parents to ask them to babysit the grandkids for a week, Diane is thrilled. Artie, not so much. The sports announcer for the Fresno Grizzlies neither wants to play grandpa nor be called it. It's clear from the tension between father and daughter that there's some unresolved business. Is it because Artie was such a hands-off parent that Alice is so hands-on, to the point of being a helicopter mom?
Much of the film's humor comes from the distances between the analog generation of Artie and Diane, the wired generation of Alice and Phil, and the wireless generation of the grandchildren. When Artie proposes to liberate the kids from their PlayStations and get them out to play kick the can, the grandkids' default reaction is to recycle the tin. "It's dirty out here!" complains a grandchild. "It's called outside!" says Grandpa.
It's less a Grandfather Knows Best entertainment than a family-friendly film in the Parenthood vein. Fickman takes care to show each of the family members in both a positive and a negative light, illustrating the principle that wisdom can just as easily flow from grandkids up as from grandparents down. The surprisingly balanced screenplay from Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse mines humor from old- and new-school food, traditional and extreme sport, unscheduled and overscheduled youth.
The performances are longer on relatability than nuance. Crystal delivers his reliable mile-a-minute patter, Midler her wisecracks, Tomei her frazzle-dazzle. This said, Crystal and Tomei share a scene that will make most dads and daughters a wee bit misty.
Much as I'm always happy to see Gedde Watanabe, who played the unfortunately named Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, his role here as the obsequious owner of a pan-Asian restaurant made my heart sink. When will Asian Americans in movies be something other than restaurant proprietors?
In a rare instance of truth-in-titling, the film is rated PG. This, for one scene in which a Little Leaguer mistakes Billy Crystal's privates for a baseball. For the most part, though, the film is free from below-the-belt humor. It's family-friendly in every meaning of the expression.
Parental Guidance *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Andy Fickman. With Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, and Marisa Tomei. Distributed by 20th-Century Fox.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (an instance of below-the-belt humor)
Playing at: area theaters