Feeling grinchy about family movies? Don’t miss “Parental Guidance” it’s one of the good ones


Artie (Billy Crystal) is the sports announcer for the Fresno, CA minor league baseball team. At the end of the season when he is suddenly let go due to the team’s reorganization,  he and his wife Diane (Bette Midler) get a call from their daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) in Atlanta. She and her husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott), a computer application inventor, are going away for several days and want the grandparents to take care of their three children. Besides, the other grandparents are busy.

Artie doesn’t want to tell Diane he’s lost his job and he doesn’t really want to go to Atlanta. They aren’t that close to the kids anyway. He’s rather focus on getting hired by the San Francisco Giants, his life-long dream. But he tells her and they are sad together for a moment and then off they go. Alice is not very enthusiastic about having her folks come to look after the precious and precocious kids because Alice and Phil have their own highly developed form of parenting that is the opposite of her parents’ style. Their house is completely computerized and their lives extremely organized. Alice gets so nervous about leaving the kids with Artie and Diane that she returns home leaving Phil at the airport to go on alone. Alice arrives back home just on time to see bedlam break out.

According to the previews you’ve probably seen on television, “Parental Guidance” seems to start and stop with gags but this is only the first part of the film and causes the story to take a while to get going. The slapstick antics are a way for the kids and grandparents get to know each other. It takes the rest of the film for Alice to learn to trust her parents, and the generations, to blend.

Each of the kids has an issue of sorts.  Harper (Bailee Madison) is twelve and a musical prodigy. She is obsessive about practicing her violin. Turner (Joshua Rush) is about nine and he stutters. Barker (Kyle Harrison Brietkopf) is five and a real operator who is a match for his grandfather when Artie wants to pay him off for good behavior.

What makes the film work is that everyone, except maybe Diane and Phil, has something to learn and they do so as they draw us into their dilemmas, and for Alice, the memories of a dad who was seldom there for her. Artie has the most to learn but he keeps going after his elusive dream regardless of the needs of others. When he tries out for a gig as an announcer at the local X games, it all comes crashing down thanks to Barker’s little kid needs.

The finale will warm the hearts of all baseball fans, especially those who have a baseball bond that transcends generations.

I feel grinchy all year round about “family films” because they are usually banal and boring. But I am happy to call “Parental Guidance” a true family film because it has so much heart, it’s about the kids (who are just kids who need their parents and grandparents as they try to understand life), their parents and the grands, and finally, it’s about the love of the game of baseball. I guarantee you’ll be moved at the end of the film. It’s a home run slugged right out of the ballpark of family movies that try to please everyone and seldom do.

Yes, Billy Crystal gets some “mature” commentary in there once or twice but he spews it out so fast it might go over the heads of most of the audience. And there are the usual body parts and functions gags that send little boys between the ages of five and 95 into gales of laughter.  But he doesn’t go overboard; his restraint is admirable. The film could have been schlock, in fact I thought it was going that way, when, “Wow.” Some of Artie’s advice to the kids is a little off the mark (how to treat bullies) but it all gets straightened out in the end.

“Parental Guidance” reminds us of why we love Bette Midler, too.

Remember, a “family film” isn’t one that lacks violence, sex, language. A family film is one that tells a good story in age appropriate ways, that overall promotes the dignity of children, family, marriage, old age and grandparents! It deals with problems and shows us ways we can bring our own lives and experience into this exercise of the moral imagination. Because good films do let us consider the choices the characters make and the consequences, they don’t hit us over the head with a “message.” They let us ponder what’s going on and what it means to me and my family. There’s lots to talk about in “Parental Guidance.”

But keep your eye on the ball; “Parental Guidance” is one of the good ones.


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