Let me set the scene for you: It's late December 2012, and movie theaters are packed with families trying to kill time before the kids go back to school. Peter Jackson's film is sold out, the big-budget musical is too long and dry for the brood, and Judd Apatow's characters curse too much. The only thing left to see is that fungible family comedy released the same time each year to suck the dimes out of your Christmas-starved pockets. This year's cast is better than normal - Billy Crystal, Bette Midler and Marisa Tomei - which makes Parental Guidance all the more disappointing. Unfunny, interminable and consistently lazy, Parental Guidance is less a film than 105 minutes of punishment for forgetting to pre-order tickets to something else. Even the kids are squirming by the halfway point.
Someone had the bright idea to make the lovely, witty Tomei's mother-of-three Alice Decker Simmons an intolerable helicopter parent who refuses to tell her children "No" and orders "Pan-Asian" steamed vegetables for dinner. Alice wants to join husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) at a developer's conference, and calls her parents, Artie (Crystal) and Diane (Midler) Decker, as a last resort. The early twist here? There's absolutely nothing wrong with recently fired sports announcer Artie and supportive, realistic Diane. It's Alice and Phil who are nuts, and Parental Guidance throws every granola and Tevas cliché at the audience, so I already hated them when the grandparents arrived. The kids are just as bad. There's banal tween Harper (Bailee Madison), blink-and-you'll-miss-him Turner (Joshua Rush), and devil-spawn Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf), who calls his grandpa "Farty" at least six thousand times. Alice and Phil sheltered the personality right out of these kids, and I doubt they've ever heard of a Chuck E. Cheese.
Director Andy Fickman, who previously helmed a number of better family comedies, never finds his comedic rhythm, and completely wastes his talented leads. Crystal can be a great actor, but he's reduced to an irritating whiner here, and Midler is given absolutely nothing to do (though she does have a funny line about smoking cigarettes after school that Tomei swallows like arsenic). The comedy here is absolutely lowest common denominator. Crystal gets thrown up on, Barker pees on skateboarder Tony Hawk, and Harper goes possessed Linda Blair when she discovers some cake in the kitchen. Phil developed a smart-home system that controls the house's many functions, so the movie milks that for all its worth, forcing Artie and Diane to fumble over the stove and other appliances. Of course, the kids are smug as hell, and revel in the grandparents' struggles. The brainwashing apparently worked, because I'd have jumped for joy at the chance to order a pizza in this house of health food.
I'd be tempted to label Parental Guidance "dull" and "innocuous" and move along, but somehow "family comedy" has come to mean "effortless money-grab" and that irks me. Just compare Parental Guidance to an actual good movie in the same vein, Parenthood. Same familial pratfalls and distinguished actors, but that film has a beating heart. I care about the Buckmans, but I absolutely hate the Simmons family in Parental Guidance. If Artie and Diane had left the kids at a Wal-Mart and hauled ass out of Atlanta I'd have given them a standing ovation. Seriously, this values-heavy, everybody-learns-a-lesson crap only works when you care about the characters. Ironically, the only thing remotely human about Parental Guidance comes during the end credits, which are lined with photos of the cast and crew enjoying life with their families. Those moments depict love, humor and human emotion, not this no-effort slice of sour celluloid.
Well, at least Parental Guidance looks nice on Fox's Blu-ray. Fickman's filming style is uncomplicated, but the 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is bright and clear, with good detail and texture. Skin tones are accurate, black levels good, and colors well saturated. There's a couple of soft shots, likely caused by the semi-grainy film stock, but nothing too worrisome.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is also strong, and is about as hearty as expected for a family comedy. Dialogue is (annoyingly) clear, and the tedious hijinks make their way to the surround speakers and subwoofer. A few nice sound pans and ambient effects also make use of the surrounds. Spanish and French 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are included, as are English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Fox brings Parental Guidance to Blu-ray in "combo pack" form. The set includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy of the film, and an insert with codes to redeem iTunes-compatible (Thank you, Fox!) and UltraViolet (these really do look awful) digital copies. The discs are packed in a Blu-ray eco-case, which is wrapped in a slipcover. If, for some reason, the movie doesn't satiate your appetite for pain, there are a couple of extras you can check out: The Audio Commentary by Director Andy Fickman and Billy Crystal is far better than the film, not because the information presented is mind-blowing, but at least you get to hear some lively banter instead of the movie. There's also some Deleted Scenes (13:00/HD), a Gag Reel (12:45/HD), and a Fox Movie Channel featurette, In Character with Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, and Marisa Tomei (4:56/SD). Things wrap up with a Theatrical Trailer (2:10/HD).
Yeah, I didn't like this one, and I don't think your family will either. Rent Parenthood instead of this no-effort Holiday cash grab. Parental Guidance wastes the talents of Billy Crystal, Bette Midler and Marisa Tomei, and the family at the heart of this family comedy is far from enjoyable to visit. Skip It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.