December 25 2012
There’s something to be said for a movie not being as bad as it sounds.
In fact, that’s most of what there is to say about “Parental Guidance,” a comedy in which Billy Crystal and Bette Midler play old-school grandparents who have to keep their new-age-ish grandkids for a few days.
Just read that description. Sounds brutal. But, thanks to Crystal and Midler playing comfortable versions of the personas we’ve come to know, it’s actually better than you would guess.
Not great, mind you. Not even good, really, for the most part. But it is sweet and means well, and Crystal is much more engaging here than he is wearing a tux and mugging as the host of the Academy Awards. So that’s something.
Artie (Crystal) is a minor-league baseball announcer who, after the last game of the season, gets laid off. He is talking about it with his wife, Diane (Midler) when the phone rings. It’s their daughter, Alice (Marisa Tomei). She and her husband, Phil (Tom Everett Scott), have to go out of town for a few days; could Artie and Diane look after the kids? A set-up scene lets us know that this is the last thing Alice and Phil want to do.
Alice didn’t approve of the way Artie and Diane raised her. She’s particularly distant from Artie, who wasn’t around a lot while traveling with the team. She and Phil are much more touchy-feely types, taking things like kid empowerment to absurd levels.
And there, pretty much, is your movie. Will the grandchildren, reluctant at first, eventually respond to Artie and Diane? Will Artie and Diane learn lessons, too? Will Alice and Artie become closer? Will Artie get hit in the groin with a baseball bat?
You know the answer.
You know all the answers, really, if you’ve ever seen any movie remotely like this. The thing that makes it modestly better than it might have been is Crystal. (Midler is underused, but her usual brassy self when she’s around.) There was a time, you may recall when he was a really funny guy.
That changed somewhere along the line. He became a kind of parody of himself. Maybe he believed all the lavish praise heaped upon him as Oscar host (none of which came from this corner). Maybe he got rich and happy and didn’t feel like he had to try as hard anymore. It happens.
This is the first time in ages some of the old stand-up Crystal shows through, flashes of quick wit instead of Borscht-belt antics. Not to the extent that it used to in such movies as “When Harry Met Sally …” (which was, ahem, 23 years ago). But better than you’d expect.
Just like the movie.