Parental Guidance must be good for someone besides Billy Crystal

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Bette Midler, playing audience surrogate during one of the bathroom gags
  • Bette Midler, playing audience surrogate during one of the bathroom gags
As I wrote earlier this year in a post about Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, I can never bring myself to hate inane family comedies like Parental Guidance because I've witnessed firsthand how happy they make people with developmental disabilities. Movies like these operate on the simplest level in terms of visual content, regularly depicting characters performing familiar actions (making toast, starting a car, watching a baseball game, etc) with little to no conflicting detail in the frame. The close-ups are comparably bare and, heightened by the broad acting style, have the effect of spelling out a scene's emotional content in all capital letters. The stories tend to be simple too. Characters state outright how they're feeling or what lessons they've learned (and, by implication, would like us to learn); the villains tend to be the characters who say mean things.

These movies are like the first books small children are given to read on their own. To call them patronizing would be missing the point. When I worked as a direct-service provider for severely and profoundly retarded adults (who ranged in intellectual capacity from about a seven-year-old level to about a six-month-old level), I found that innocuous junk like Beethoven and How to Eat Fried Worms were the movies they felt most confident talking about. They could identify most of the onscreen action, and a few could even attempt a plot summary—which they couldn't do for Mary Poppins or Norbit, as much as they enjoyed watching both.

Parental Guidance tells the story of a 60-something couple (Billy Crystal, Bette Midler) who take care of their three grandchildren while their daughter (Marisa Tomei) and her husband (Tom Everett Scott) go out of town. Neither daughter nor grandkids feel especially close to them at the beginning of the movie, but of course this changes by the end. In familiar sitcom fashion, all four of these characters have a personal problem that Crystal and Midler help them resolve. The oldest grandchild, a preteen girl, spends all her time practicing the violin and is afraid to make friends at school. The middle child, a boy of about ten, gets picked on because he speaks with a stutter. The youngest, a boy of kindergarten age, has a behavioral disorder that makes him act out all the time. And Tomei's character is a micromanaging, overprotective mother.

All of these characters overcome their problems in roughly a week. Crystal or Midler observe the kid or grandkid in action, determine the cause of the issue, then tell him or her how to solve it. The subject usually puts up some resistance, but then she tries following the advice and realizes that the grandparent was right all along. In the straight delineation of the storytelling and its emphasis on problem-solving, Parental Guidance reminded me of the social-behavior workbooks I read aloud with the disabled adults I worked with. I appreciate it as cinema about as much as I appreciated those workbooks as literature, but I recognize the utilitarian value of both.

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At the same time, this movie stinks of entitlement. The grandparents leave their large suburban home at the beginning only to visit their daughter's large suburban home in another state. No image in Parental Guidance suggests an alternative to upper-middle-class suburban living. Every character has his own bedroom, and every adult character drives a new car. In one pivotal scene, Midler takes her granddaughter on a shopping spree on a school-day afternoon, showing no concern for how much she spends—it's as though burning up money were a common recreational activity.

I'll concede it's easier to solve interpersonal problems when you don't have to worry about money, but Parental Guidance conjures a world in which money problems simply don't exist. Crystal's character has been forced into early retirement at the beginning of the movie, which upsets him not because he has to work but because he likes to. In one of the more embarrassing scenes, a homeless man eavesdrops outside a stall while Crystal helps his youngest grandson move his bowels in a filthy public bathroom. The kid's so spoiled that he needs someone to sing to him before he can shit, and the benign caricature of a bum hums along in a cutaway shot. Like Crystal with regards to his job, this man seems to live on a bathroom floor for no reason other than enjoying it.

The scene is less embarrassing in its scatological detail (which is common parlance among small children and retirees) than in its demand that the spectator find it endearing. Much of Parental Guidance seems to exist to flatter Crystal's ego, even if it means sacrificing narrative coherence. In this moment, for instance, we're meant to laugh at Crystal for stooping so low and admire him for doing so much for his grandson (it's comparable to how the filmmakers present the bum as both an emblem of urban decay and a cartoon character to dote on). Crystal is meant to seem big-hearted for embracing his role as father and grandfather, and it's entirely his daughter's fault for not allowing him to do so earlier. The movie introduces his character as rude but honest, his grating, indelicate behavior excused by his inherent lovability. His common-sense advice is beyond fault; the movie even implies he's better qualified than a speech therapist to treat his grandson's speech impediment.

Midler isn't in the movie as much as Crystal, but she also gets the royal treatment. The movie mainly appeals to her vanity through close-ups and costume design (you'd think the filmmakers would have found an opportunity for her to sing), presenting her character as a beautiful woman with the vitality of someone half her age. On a big screen, the results are often terrifying. Midler has been the beneficiary of so much cosmetic surgery that she resembles one of Peter Jackson's dwarves in The Hobbit. When she's the only thing to look at in a shot, you can only flinch at or confront head-on her Norma Desmond-like desperation for the spotlight.

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