Shortly after he gets fired from his job as a minor-league baseball announcer, Artie Decker (Billy Crystal) and his wife Diane (Bette Midler) get a chance to spend time with their three grandchildren. Their worry-wart daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) and her inventor husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) have been invited to a convention/getaway, so Alice reluctantly asks her parents to babysit for five days.
Parental Guidance is one of those intergenerational embarrassment comedies in the Meet the Fockers line, where children can enjoy seeing grown-ups looking ridiculous. Seniors, meanwhile, can chuckle along with Artie’s bewilderment over such phenomena as tofu, Twitter and kids’ baseball games designed to end in a tie. Alice stands as the mid-generation audience’s representative here – she gets hives just thinking about her boisterously vulgar parents. In an early scene, she offers some helpful advice to her trio of coddled kids – the perfectionist 12-year-old Harper (Bailee Madison), timid, stuttering eight-year-old Turner (Joshua Rush) and Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf), a five-year-old hellion with a trouble-making imaginary friend.
Unable to bear the thought of exposing the kids to her parents, Alice makes an excuse to come back home early from her planned sexy time with hubbie, so she hangs around for a few more scenes. Predictably, Artie’s and Diane’s old-school, carefree/careless parenting style is at odds with her neurotically precious house rules, which include “three put-ups” for every “put-down” and a ban on the words “don’t” and “no.” When the family goes to a restaurant, it’s “Pan-Asian,” not Chinese, and the restaurant’s owner (Gedde Watanabe) is a silly gent who says “Oy vey” and believes that Barker’s imaginary kangaroo friend is real.
As well as a meditation on changing generational customs, Parental Guidance is a reminder of all those things that we have in common, especially below the belt. Artie gets hit in the crotch by both a water gun and a baseball bat (he counter-strikes by projectile-vomiting his chili dog). Later, Barker urinates from the top of a half-pipe at a skateboarding event, causing cameo star Tony Hawk to wipe out in a pee puddle. There’s also a touching scene as grandpa sings a song to help his constipated grandson squeeze one out in the men’s room at a baseball game.
Director Andy Fickman, who previously made the cross-dressing basketball comedy She’s The Man and the Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson comedy The Game Plan, follows Crystal’s lead as the comedian riffs through scenes with a glazed, mock-incredulity, tossing out one-liners as if listening to some private Catskills rhythm track. Though Midler breezily trades quips with him at the same tempo, her character feels sketchy here, as a former good-time weather gal whose main project is to transform her earnest 12-year-old granddaughter into a pubescent hussy.
Tomei, in the doubly thankless role of ungrateful daughter and over-controlling mom, at least wins a sympathy vote and serves as a cautionary example. Parents of young children, be guided: Go book a hotel and have some naughty fun. This movie isn’t for you, although it’s possible it will serve as a meeting point for your elders and youngers.