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Parental Guidance

Dir: Andy Fickman. US. 2012. 105mins

The family comedy Parental Guidance’s main attribute is its utter inoffensiveness, a feature that may make it an ideal choice for indiscriminating audiences this holiday season. For everyone else, this forgettable diversion — which stars Billy Crystal and Bette Midler as a well-meaning couple trying to connect with their coddled grandchildren — will be a broad, predictable, feel-good tale about family that duly hits every emotional beat right on schedule.

With a strenuousness that dulls everything in its path, Parental Guidance bends over backwards to neuter the generational conflict that’s meant to be the movie’s core humour.

Opening Christmas Day in the US, this Fox offering doesn’t have the Oscar buzz or high profile of a Django Unchained or Les Misérables. Consequently, it will appeal to older crowds and family audiences seeking something light and undemanding during the seasonal rush. Crystal and Midler should help boost the movie’s visibility on DVD and cable, although since the movie isn’t actually set during Christmas, it won’t have a chance to benefit from annual holiday airings.

Recently fired from his long-time job as a baseball announcer, Artie (Crystal) reluctantly goes with his wife Diane (Midler) to visit their daughter Alice’s (Marisa Tomei) family. Asked to watch Alice and her husband’s three young children while they get away for a week, Artie and Diane learn that their old-fashioned approach to parenting leaves them ill-equipped to deal with their daughter’s “enlightened,” touchy-feely style.

Directed by Andy Fickman (Race To Witch Mountain, The Game Plan), Parental Guidance lays out its characters without much nuance or surprise, and then proceeds to play out just as one would expect. Callous Artie will learn not to be so hard-headed with his grandchildren, and they in return will push out of the comfort zone — especially perfectionist daughter Harper (Bailee Madison) — to become happier, more well-rounded kids. Likewise, Alice’s overly protective style of parenting will be adjusted, although not so much that the movie seems to be condemning her.

With a strenuousness that dulls everything in its path, Parental Guidance bends over backwards to neuter the generational conflict that’s meant to be the movie’s core humour. Instead, we get wholly innocuous jokes that tend toward slapstick and shtick, relying on Crystal and Midler to enliven the proceedings through sheer force of their personalities. At this stage of their careers, they’re such well-seasoned hams that they can make sitcom-level bits mildly amusing, but the movie’s mixture of strained gags and sentimental interludes recalls a dozen of uninspired family comedies that came before.

The rest of the cast members blessedly avoid cutesiness, gamely giving their all to material that’s always heartfelt but only rarely remotely memorable. Tomei and Tom Everett Scott (as her husband) are sufficiently likeable portraying totally stereotypical harried parents trying to balance career and family. Madison doesn’t overplay her character’s crippling perfectionism, and Joshua Rush and Kyle Harrison Breitkopf are adequate as her brothers, although Rush gets saddled playing a boy with a speech impediment who gets picked on at school. Don’t worry, though: Like everything else in Parental Guidance, such problems aren’t anything a few stale jokes and a contrived resolution can’t fix.

Production companies: Walden Media, Chernin Entertainment, Face Productions, Inc.

Domestic distribution: Twentieth Century Fox, www.foxmovies.com

Producers: Billy Crystal, Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark

Executive producer: Kevin Halloran

Screenplay: Lisa Addario & Joe Syracuse

Cinematography: Dean Semler

Production design: David J. Bomba

Editor: Kent Beyda

Music: Marc Shaiman

Website: www.parentalguidancemovie.com

Cast: Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott, Bailee Madison

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