It’s that time of year when we head to the multiplex accompanied by people we normally wouldn’t see movies with. When it comes to spending two hours in the dark with our fretful aunts and reactionary in-laws, we’re less concerned with entertainment value than the awkwardness factor – the less nudity, violence, and politics a movie has, the better. On this score, you could do worse than Parental Guidance, a family comedy with the same rating as its name. Just don’t expect the luxury of dozing off. Things get noisy, as you can imagine, when a pair of high-powered helicopter parents leave Billy Crystal and Bette Midler in charge of their three kids for a weekend.
Tomei and Scott are wealthy progressives who live in an eco-friendly “smart house” that speaks in a British accent, guards against intruders with voice-recognition software, and makes its own waffles. Their kids, coddled soy-milk drinkers, range in age from tyke to tween. In a series of inorganic exposition dumps, we learn of the couple’s need for a romantic vacation, the unavailability of his parents and the preferred sitters, and the fearsome prospect of Plan B: her folks (Crystal and Midler), two raging hambones so vaudeville-ready we expect their necks to get cane-yanked out of the frame at any moment.
Crystal is a minor league baseball announcer; Midler, a retired “singing weather girl” from TV. Their dated generational jokes about speaker phones, tofu dogs, and Facebook “pokes” are soon drowned out in a tsunami of bathroom humor – the psychological justification for which, one supposes, is that most people are potty-trained by their parents, so why would families be made uncomfortable by references to poop?
The actors deserve credit for the professionalism they bring to this stinker, especially Tomei, who plays it straight as a contemporary have-it-all-or-die-trying mom, and Midler, who’s given little to do, but works up an amusing backstory about her days as a good-time gal on the evening news. And Parental Guidance is not without some intriguing “Crystal moments.” We see him in fluorescent face paint at the symphony, a seeming extratextual nod to his infamous Sammy Davis Jr. impression in blackface at this year’s Oscars. This is hardly as funny as McConaughey’s bongo number in Magic Mike, but then again, you’d never want to watch that one with your mom and dad. Poor Crystal. There remains a scintilla of dignity in his sad clown. He may beatbox while wearing wraparound sunglasses, but, thankfully for you and yours, he does not dance the robot.