Entertainment

‘Parental Guidance’ needs humor therapy | 2 stars

“Parental Guidance” would be better as a drama first and a comedy second, instead of the other way around.

There’s some heart-tugging resonance in scenes where expectations fall short or are exceeded among relatives who’ve drifted apart.

Otherwise, this ’90s-type family comedy falls into the same traps as most second-tier sitcoms, with eccentric characters and snappy zingers spouted as if cue cards were hovering at the edge of the frame. It’s not that the jokes fail to land; they’re just so inorganic. They’re the AstroTurf of humor.

Speaking of which, Billy Crystal plays Artie Decker, a minor league baseball announcer for the Fresno Grizzlies who gets unceremoniously booted from his beloved gig. Wife Diane (Bette Midler) embraces this opportunity as a way to reconnect with the couple’s only child, Alice (Marisa Tomei), who has invited them to spend a week in her Atlanta home.

“You know what grandparenting is? A second chance,” Diane explains.

Alice and her husband (Tom Everett Scott) head out of town on a business trip, leaving the Deckers in charge of their three young kids … and the household, which is running a prototype “fully automated, voice-activated, smart house.”

Since Artie is a technophobe, it already makes him uncomfortable. But so does parenting, and he’s baffled by his grandkids: perfectionist preteen Harper (Bailee Madison, who gives the film’s best performance), shy stutterer Turner (Joshua Rush) and the obsessive-compulsive youngest, Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf).

Artie’s style is a never-quite-appropriate mix of letting kids do what they want and then yelling at them if they screw up, which completely clashes with his uptight daughter’s helicopter method of progressive education.

Most in-law comedies are seen from the perspective of the younger generation. “Parental Guidance” takes the reverse route, providing Crystal with an actual leading role that doesn’t entail hosting an awards show. He’s capable, if a little mechanical.

His best scenes revolve around challenging dippy New-Age systems, like Turner’s T-ball game where the teams don’t keep track of outs. Everybody hits!

When Crystal and Midler occasionally decide to act instead of rely on Borscht Belt shtick (courtesy of “Surf’s Up” scribes Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse), they’re effective.

Midler — looking more in shape now than at any point of her career — has played exaggerated showbiz versions of herself for so long that it’s easy to forget she once was a powerful dramatic presence, as in her Oscar-nominated “The Rose.” Director Andy Fickman (“Race to Witch Mountain”) draws some depth from her between stretches where she’s depicting “a tornado with lipstick.”

“Parental Guidance” is ultimately a wish-fulfillment fantasy for grandparents. In that respect, it corners an untapped market. Albeit, a very safe one.

Rated PG for some rude humor. WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING

• 

Roger Moore, McClatchy- Tribune:

“The laughs are, to use the old fashioned term, telegraphed, with director Andy Fickman (“The Game Plan”) clearing the decks to make every laugh line a stale showcase moment for his stars.”

• 

Brian Lowry, Variety:
  Comments