In the occasionally funny but mostly facile ’80s-style culture-clash comedy Parental Guidance, Billy Crystal, who now resembles a very cute puffer fish, plays Artie Decker, a small-time professional baseball announcer who’s essentially a nice guy. At the same time, he’s a clueless crank when it comes to everything that’s changed in America over the past 25 years. After being fired from his job as a broadcaster for the Fresno Grizzlies, Artie, along with his wife, Diane (Bette Midler), is asked by their daughter (Marisa Tomei) to spend five days babysitting her three children so that she and her husband (Tom Everett Scott) can go off on a holiday. (”We’re the other grandparents,” says Diane in horror, after seeing that her daughter’s mantlepiece is full of smiling photographs of… the kids’ paternal grandparents. The ones who are always there.)
Artie shows up, bearing sweets as a gift, only to learn that his grandchildren aren’t allowed to eat sugar (Artie: ”No Carvel? That’s the saddest thing I ever heard!”). It’s his introduction to the fact that they’ve grown up in a world he didn’t even know existed: a squishy and empathic, behaviorally correct, vigilantly monitored, everybody-wins universe of ”enlightened” middle-class child-rearing, where kids are coddled as if one small blunder of insensitivity could destroy their futures. It’s not enough that the daughter, Harper (Bailee Madison), who’s studying the violin, is a solemn perfectionist; she has to be diagnosed with ”high achievement syndrome.” And Turner (Joshua Rush), who stutters, attends a speech-therapy class that’s so progressive the kids aren’t even asked…to speak! Of course, Artie, the old-school grandpa, is having none of this. He’s the bull in the china shop of the new family sensitivity. He feeds the kids ice-cream cake, watches Saw with Turner, and deals with bouts of acting out from the mop-topped young Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) by bribing him with cash.
Except that Artie also can’t stop apologizing for his gauchely out-of-date point of view. At that speech class, he chides the teacher (which is funny), then begs for her forgiveness (which is not). He mixes up Barker’s food on his plate (a no-no! Barker likes his portions ”not to touch”) and then basically says Sorry, sorry, I didn’t know! At a kids’ baseball game, when he learns that there are no outs and not even a score (lest the children end up scarred by too much competition), he gets up in the stands to protest, but that token bout of misbehavior goes nowhere either.
Parental Guidance has been slapped together by its director, Andy Fickman, and after a while it seems to run out of jokes, maybe to make room for all the crying and hug-it-out family redemption in the last half hour. In form, the movie satirizes our overly controlled era, in which an unhip grandfather like Artie, with his bad old jokes and what-the-hell approach to discipline, is far more of a free spirit than the kids who look at him like he’s a dinosaur. The trouble is, the movie is structured to be on Artie’s side, but it actually has too much allegiance to the new mode of parenting to allow Artie to disembowel it completely. Which makes Billy Crystal, in this role, a rebel with foam rubber teeth. C