BY MICHAEL WALTERS
The best thing that can be said for “Parental Guidance” is that it’s not quite as awful as it appears. In his years away from the big screen, Billy Crystal has morphed into the second coming of Henny Youngman. He’s got a plethora of punch lines straight from the Catskills. His jokes are about as fresh as an egg salad sandwich that’s been left out overnight, and he’s somewhere decades away from cool. But there’s an old-fashioned familiarity that makes him at least amiable. His grandpa humor fits him like a Member’s Only jacket, and he’s the only thing Parental Guidance has going for it.
Crystal plays a minor-league baseball announcer laid off from his job for not being sufficiently connected to Facebook. Bette Midler is his brassy wife, who always seems on the verge of a song and dance. Despite the brutally unfunny trailers, “Parental Guidance” has one good idea: Crystal and Middler realize they’re the other grandparents to the three children of their daughter (Marisa Tomei). So, when she asks them to babysit for a week, they jump at the chance to start over and build a relationship with their grandchildren.
But from then on the film’s execution is blatantly and embarrassingly artificial. The children have a variety of sitcom kid ailments (the daughter’s a high strung perfectionist, the son talks to an imaginary friend.) The parents are the touchy feely types who never use the word no and don’t want to threaten their children’s fragile self-esteem. The grandparents disapprove of their daughter’s parenting and think there’s nothing wrong with their grandchildren that a little spanking and tough love won’t solve. Not a second of it rings true, and the pithy punch lines mask a nasty “What is the world coming to?” vibe.
The film lumbers around laboring between forced sentimentality and cringe-inducing attempts at situation comedy before hitting its nadir during an ill-advised trip to the “X-Games.” At one point, Billy and Bette break into a song and dance routine for no other reason than maybe Middler’s fans expect one. But on the whole it’s a clueless, sour and unfunny enterprise. No parent or child should be subjected to this.