First Time Watch: Parental Guidance (2012)

By Christian DiMartino

Parental Guidance is a movie that absolutely nobody talks about. Seriously, who talks about it? Truth is, when the film was released on Christmas Day nine years ago (the same day as Best Picture nominees Les Miserables and Django Unchained), the trailers looked… well, not good. Billy Crystal is a gem, Bette Midler is a delight, and Marisa Tomei… that woman makes me question my sexuality. Yet this just looked like crap. Years have gone by though, and typically, I seek out the crap, because it usually brings me some pretty solid writing material. So for whatever reason (well, that), I was compelled to watch Parental Guidance this week.

The movie is… hmm. Frankly, it’s surprising that the rating isn’t lower. Yet the three aforementioned thespian gems listed in the first paragraph probably couldn’t make something THAT awful, and frankly, they didn’t. It’s not quite good, but it’s also not always dreadful, either. The movie has a few moments that did bring a smile to my face. In fact, it even made me laugh, simply because of the eager beaver good nature of the performers and their delivery. Yet there are also moments that don’t work, and by the end… well, there is another topic to discuss, but I’ll save it for later.

Crystal is a sportscaster named Artie, who is fired from his announcing because he isn’t with the times. They open the film with this and honestly, Crystal’s delivery as his boss discusses all things Facebook and Twitter is certainly old people humor but also funny, because it’s in Crystal’s hands. He’s distraught, and his loving wife Diane (Midler) is distraught for him. To make matters worse, their daughter Alice (Tomei) asks them if they can watch their three kids while her and her husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) go out of town. Alice is reluctant because of their old-timey ways; Artie and Diane are somewhat aware of what’s to come, though Diane wants to play a more prominent role in their grandchildren’s lives.

So they agree and book a flight to see them. Even having her parents on board, Alice is still hesitant. You see, Alice and Phil have a very dorky, hippie-ish way of raising their children, making them express themselves through words and therapy, playing baseball games in which everyone is a winner, no watching scary movies, etc. So Diane and Artie (nicknamed “Farty” by the youngest child, which made me twitch every single time I heard it, which was about 15 times) try to watch the children the way their daughter wants them to be watched, while also implementing their own methods.

Aaaaaand… that’s about it. Which sounds corny and cliché, and at times… yeah, it is. There are things here that don’t work, which is a shame because it’s usually countered by a scene that does sort of work. Take a scene where Artie, a baseball aficionado, discovers that his grandson is playing on a baseball team without winning or losing. It’s an inspired moment, because the other parents’ see it as a load of crap, and because as a Crystal aficionado, we know his admiration for sports. Yet the scene ultimately ends with Artie getting hit in the nutsack, and vomiting his chili dog all over a child’s face.

Hilarious.

There’s another pretty strange moment that is etched in my brain, because it’s not only not necessarily funny, but it’s just… weird. And it goes on for like 4 minutes. Artie has to accompany the youngest kid to a public bathroom, and he has to serenade the child as he takes a poop. As if that isn’t weird enough, there are about four others in the bathroom, and they all stop to listen. It’s uh… it’s odd.

Parental Guidance often walks this line, wanting to give us an old-people family comedy while also catering to the likes of very young children. On the whole it’s… watchable, because what’s funny in it is actually decently funny, but also what isn’t funny is indecently unfunny. The majority of the dead air comes from the film’s youngest grandson, named Barker (the one who named Artie “Farty,” so we didn’t start off on the right track). I know this is a kid and he’s a kid in a family comedy and he’s rambunctious and we’re supposed to laugh but I hated the little bastard. His material isn’t funny, it mostly feels like annoyance. It also feels like he belongs in a psych ward, particularly because of his imaginary friend- a pet kangaroo named Carl. Now hear me out: nothing wrong with imaginary friends, but by the end of this movie, he literally has even a server from an Asian restaurant distraught over this kangaroo. Frankly, the majority of these people need an enema.

Which leads me to what I really want to talk about: the finale. Well, if you call it that. Parental Guidance, honestly, isn’t that bad. It seems corny and stupid, and at times it is, but it also has its times. There has always been a level of respect for Crystal on my end, but even more of one since I’ve gotten older. The actors really do elevate this material to the highest degree possible. Yet it’s still not a film that can be fully recommended. Maybe it’s acceptable if there’s nothing else to do, but the film is also so thin that full credit can’t be delivered.

Watching it yesterday, it reaches a point where Tony Hawk slips in urine (yeah, that happens too), and, well, it’s at about this time that the film seems close to wrapping up. Then it doesn’t. You honestly forget that Phil and Alice are out of town, then the children develop their own personal dilemmas, then the parents return, then things get dramatic, and then it keeps going, and going, and going, and going. It occurred to me after Hawk slipped in Barker’s urine that the film really didn’t have a story; conflicts are introduced, but not really developed, and what conflicts do make it into the final cut feel as if they were thrown into the last minute.

Mind you, I’m okay with a comedy without plot if it’s all funny. This one is… so-so, so it doesn’t fully feel justified. Yet it also doesn’t feel justified that the movie just… keeps going. It’s as if they were on the last day of filming and the director said, “is there anything anybody wants to add?” Everyone chimed in, and the movie keeps going until it finally ends. Or it’s like Crystal and Midler told everyone up front that this was to be their last movie, so the filmmakers decided to keep the movie going as long as they could. What’s weird is even despite the fatigue, Parental Guidance isn’t an awful movie, it’s just one that, after a while, feels like it has something to say, but it says too much, and none of it is particularly new, but it all made the final cut anyways. The finale, which features all sorts of hugging and learning, feels so long that by the end, it felt as if a spell had been lifted. Which is a bummer, because despite what is clearly lesser material, Parental Guidance does have those moments where the good company in charge of the show make you feel like you’re in good company. You are in good company… that is better suited elsewhere.

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