x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Film review: Parental Guidance is just as good as it needs to be

It might be a little bit too obvious, but Parental Guidance can still raise some laughs.

Billy Crystal, left, Kyle Harrison Breitkopf and Joshua Rush. Phil Caruso / AP / Twentieth Century Fox / Walden Media
Billy Crystal, left, Kyle Harrison Breitkopf and Joshua Rush. Phil Caruso / AP / Twentieth Century Fox / Walden Media

Parental Guidance

Director: Andy Fickman

Starring: Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei, Bailee Madison, Kyle Harrison Breitkopf, Joshua Rush

***

Pressing all the obvious buttons for a big gloopy Hollywood comedy about Middle American family values, Parental Guidance is only as good as it needs to be, and not an inch more. Billy Crystal is reliably deadpan as Artie Decker, a curmudgeonly old-school baseball commentator on the cusp of 60 who suddenly finds himself outdated and unemployed. Meanwhile, he and his retired weathergirl wife Diane (Midler) are summoned to Atlanta to perform rare babysitting duties for their grown-up daughter Alice (Tomei) and her three neurotic, pampered, over-protected children. Right from their arrival, a clash of generational attitudes and parenting styles becomes inevitable.

Unlike other pan-generational movies about mildly dysfunctional American families, such as Parenthood or Little Miss Sunshine, this sunny feel-good comedy is aimed squarely at the sweet end of the bittersweet spectrum. There is never much doubt whether minor generational tensions will be resolved, lessons will be learnt and love will save the day.

Crystal's crusty old senior may start the film as an antiquated figure of fun, but the script ultimately endorses his traditionalist worldview, mocking fanciful modern notions such as non-competitive sport or meat-free, low-fat snacks for kids.

With its syrupy score and tear-jerking dialogue, Parental Guidance tries a little too hard to prove it has a big heart. It might have made more emotional impact if the plot had some real dramatic depth, rather than being essentially a series of wisecracking sketches loosely strung together. The scene in which Crystal and his under-confident grandson form an unlikely bond over a crackly recording of a 1950s baseball game is also a dollop of pure schmaltz that will only make sense to US audiences while leaving most foreign viewers cold. The baseball speech recurs later during a toe-curling finale.

Fortunately, some sharp jokes and solid performances help the journeyman director Andy Fickman add zing to these tired family-movie clichés. The script moves along at a pleasingly brisk pace and features some strong comic set pieces, including a bravura musical sequence in a train station toilet and an agreeably messy encounter with the skateboarding champion Tony Hawk, who sportingly plays himself. And while Crystal and Midler are coasting at times, the three child stars - Madison, Breitkopf and Rush - all shine.

Parental Guidance is safe, bland, wholesome comfort food at heart. But it contains enough cartoonish slapstick to please younger viewers and enough universally recognisable jokes about the trials of childcare to strike a chord with parents and grandparents alike.