Parental Guidance is a film about two grandparents, played by Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, who have to babysit their grandkids for a week. It is not, from a traditional perspective, what you would consider a “high concept.” The only types of comedy more simplistic than putting someone in an uncomfortable situation and watching them deal with it would be getting hit in the nuts with a baseball bat and poopie jokes. Parental Guidance has those too. I’m going to take the high road here and just forgive it for that. This film is being marketed to parents, after all: people for whom poopie is a regular daily concern, and who – if their kids are anything like the ones in Parental Guidance, at least – probably hate their own genitalia by now anyway. These are not the problems we should be having with Parental Guidance. Its crimes are more insidious than that.
What director Andy Fickman has put together here is a “family” movie in the ugliest possible sense. There is, theoretically, something for everyone: kids get to see kids be miserable because of their parents, parents get to see parents incapable of escaping their horrible kids, and grandparents get to see grandparents being right all the time. It’s a rather kind movie to grandparents, who get to be played with earnestness and more than a little charm by Bette Midler and Billy Crystal, while dumping a horrible role on Academy Award-winner and two-time nominee Marisa Tomei, who looks beautiful but can’t make her confusing character work because not even Meryl Streep could.
The crux of Parental Guidance’s one joke is that kids are different these days. Which, indeed, they are. Well spotted, Parental Guidance. But rather than take a look at what kids are actually like now, and the reasons why they turned out that way, the filmmakers have decided instead to concoct a cartoonishly neutered version of reality where a wishy-washy generation of parents refuses to say “no” to their kids and thus indulges in their every whim, personified perhaps in a baseball game where there are no outs and nobody keeps score. Stuff like this happens, obviously, but Parental Guidance treats it as a disgusting, all-encompassing trend that turns daily life into an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” and not even the good “Twilight Zone.” This is the 1980s “Twilight Zone.” It’s not quite clever or pervasive enough to qualify as broad satire, in the Idiocracy vein, so instead it just plays like the filmmakers wanted to be extremely judgmental and changed reality around just enough to make themselves look blameless.
And wow, do they try to make themselves look blameless. Billy Crystal and Bette Midler’s daughter, Marisa Tomei, gets panic attacks at the very thought of her parents visiting, but we never get anything close to a decent explanation as to why she would. They don’t have a good handle on modern technology, sure, but that’s not really worth getting a rash about. Billy Crystal cracks jokes that the kids don’t understand, but that describes grandfathers everywhere, so who cares. Marisa Tomei raises her children in an atmosphere of oppressive niceties and blind support for their every emotional need, but her obsessive fervor for these child-rearing techniques is never delved into or justified. We get the impression that she didn’t like the way she herself was raised – and who did, I suppose – but every time her own childhood comes up in conversation it’s a topic of romantic nostalgia. Her father didn’t tuck her in at night, but he incorporated her bedtime into every one of his nightly sports broadcasts, so she had evidence that he cared.. Her mother brought her on TV for musical numbers on the local weather reports, which she remembers fondly enough to still do the choreography. She was loved, supported, sent to college, and got a successful career in her chosen line of work, but then she suddenly turned into a resentful creature who never wants to see her parents again and rejects everything they didn’t feel remotely strongly enough about to stand for in the first place.
And “why” would Parental Guidance do this…?
Towards the end of Parental Guidance, Billy Crystal gives a speech to Marisa Tomei about how he raised her in a supportive and creative atmosphere because he didn’t get one as a kid. Then he illustrates, rather elegantly, how her quiet rejection of her parents hurt them on a deep, personal level. She has no defense for this, not because he’s right, but because her character isn’t given the dignity of a rationale. If she had any reason for why she took issue with her parents, sure, the plot would actually make sense, but it would also negate the real reason why Parental Guidance exists: to prove that grandparents are always right, that their children should have listened, and that their grandkids are getting seriously screwed up without their direct influence. Not just these grandparents, mind you, but every single grandparent in the world regardless of context. Parental Guidance protests the entitlement of children by shamelessly promoting the entitlement of condescending grandparents.
Look, grandparents deserve movies too. Even movies that blindly support them at the cost of others. But it would be healthier to see Billy Crystal and Bette Midler play homicidal maniacs ripping into fortysomethings and digesting their organs than anything even remotely like Parental Guidance. At least Grannibals would be an obvious satire and have something, however blunt, to actually say about the generational gap. And at least the film’s targets, the kids who dared to raise their own kids differently, would have been given the inherent respect owed to helpless victims. But Parental Guidance moves heaven and earth to make its sanctimonious leads, however nicely portrayed by the actors, into godlike martyrs who can do no wrong, while their kids, for no reason whatsoever, can do no right.
Don’t take your family to see Parental Guidance. Parents will be insulted, grandparents will get insufferably smug, and kids would be just as entertained by a two-hour loop of “Gangnam Style.” Sure, the grandparents wouldn't get it, but if Parental Guidance is any indication of how they actually think, then they really don’t get you either.
William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.