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'Parental Guidance' review

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Director: Andy Fickman; Screenwriters: Lisa Addario, Joe Syracuse; Starring: Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott, Bailee Madison; Running time: 104 mins; Certificate: U


Apparently there comes a point in every comic's life when, after living on the edge for so long, they reach for the pipe and slippers and start doing toothless family comedies. Billy Crystal and Bette Midler welcome this chapter with open arms in Parental Guidance as the irresponsible grandparents in charge of three cosseted grandkids.

Artie (Crystal) is a veteran baseball commentator, and talking about sports is treated as shorthand, here, for emotional illiteracy. He balks at the idea of babysitting the children over a long weekend when his highly-strung daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) is left with no other option, but grandma Diane (Midler) jumps at the chance to bond with the kids she rarely gets to see.

Supposedly, what separates this comedy from other babysitting capers is the clash between old-school parenting and new, high-maintenance methods of child rearing. Alice gives the folks a detailed briefing on pop psychology techniques - among them, never saying 'no' - but finds she cannot cut the apron strings and delays going away to meet her husband (Tom Everett Scott).

Naturally, Artie makes a mess of things, letting the kids eat a sugary cream cake - an ill-judged move that sparks an old-fashioned food fight - and while trying to score another commentating job at a skateboarding event, he allows the youngest (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) to pee on the half-pipe with tragic consequences for a certain Tony Hawk in an awkward cameo.

There are poo gags, too, and youngsters may find all of this a hoot, but grown-ups may feel a bit left out. Crystal and Midler are the obvious draw for the older demographic and the cheeky banter between them is mildly amusing, but it's never as scathing as it could be. Director Andy Fickman (who specialises in family fare like Race to With Mountain) pitches squarely at the nippers.

That would be fine, except he promises a lot more by plunging Artie and Diane out of their depth in a less brave new world - a house that is fully computerised - so that mum and dad can micromanage their family life. Rather than send up these modern obsessions, Fickman angles for basic punchlines, like the voice of the computer referring to Artie as Farty...

Fickman also tugs too hard on the heartstrings. Artie builds a quite touching relationship with stuttering 8-year-old Turner (Joshua Rush) while Midler bonds with 12-year-old Harper (Bailee Madison) who is being groomed for high achievement at the expense of a social life. Again though, quandaries about the pressures of modern life are resolved with silly schmaltz and tired old clichés.

The chaos is heavily engineered and eventually leads to a regimented finale - spelled out like A, B, C - so what should have been a fresh take on the babysitting comedy is actually a lazy retread. If modern parents can take away one valuable lesson from watching this, it may be that they should have taken the kids to see the latest Pixar movie instead.

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