By Sean P. Means
It’s Christmas, and Billy Crystal is serving up the kosher ham in “Parental Guidance,” a wincingly unfunny family comedy that puts Crystal’s overbearing shtick front and center.
Crystal and Bette Midler star as Artie and Diane, a California married couple whose adult daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) lives in Atlanta with her inventor husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) and their three kids. Diane frets that they have become “the other grandparents,” the ones the kids don’t see as often as their “regular” grandparents. Artie has more selfish concerns, when he’s laid off from his job as a minor-league baseball announcer.
When Phil wins an award for his latest invention, a fully automated house in which the family lives, he and Alice plan a weekend getaway. But with Phil’s parents unavailable, he suggests calling Artie and Diane to babysit for a few days – an idea that literally gives Alice a case of hives. Alice worries that her parents’ overbearing nature, and old-school discipline, won’t mesh with her modern parenting.
Sure enough, when they arrive, Artie complains about the kids’ gluten-free, conflict-free and overscheduled lives – where eldest daughter Harper (Bailee Madison) stresses over violin rehearsals, middle child Turner (Joshua Simmons) has a stutter, and the littlest, Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf), is an unholy terror.
The kids’ reaction to their seldom-seen grandparents is to follow Alice’s advice, and laugh at Artie’s jokes even if they aren’t funny. One suspects that was what it was like on the set with Crystal, as his pet gag writers try to punch up the script (credited to Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse) like Krusty the Clown ad-libbing Borscht Belt one-liners through “King Lear.”
Crystal’s imposing presence turns the attention of every scene, whether comical or faux-emotional, away from the other characters and toward Artie. If there’s a lesson in parenting in “Parental Guidance,” it’s that no one is too old to be taught to share.