A Low Blow

Billy Crystal, who used to be funny (remember?) is an unlikable lead in 'Parental Guidance'

A shot to the nuts.

It's the laziest gimmick in comedy, with a tradition that probably goes back to a time when it was funny ... so before America's Funniest Home Videos. But because it's such an easy trick to pull off—intended to get a cheap laugh by appealing to the lowest common denominator—a planned shot below the belt almost always backfires. It's dubiously unfunny.

So when Billy Crystal receives an aluminum bat to his City Slickers in Parental Guidance, there is also an aftershock. Billy Crystal, you see, used to be funny. But give him some credit: Steve Martin took his desperate low blow almost a decade ago in one of those Cheaper by the Dozen movies, so for Crystal to hold out this long is quite an accomplishment.

Crystal plays Artie (which, spoiler alert, rhymes with the oft-heard "Fartie"), and one day he and his wife, Diane (Bette Midler), get a call to come watch the grandkids. Their daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) wants to go out of town with her husband for a big awards banquet but she doesn't exactly trust her folks around her three kids. Alice raises her children differently than Artie and Diane raised her. So it's tofu dogs and baseball games with no outs or winners or losers for young Harper, Turner and Barker.

Artie is old school, however. He can't help it. He's hard-wired to see the world a certain way. He's reminded of that fact when he's fired as the voice of a minor league baseball team in Fresno whose games he has announced for eons. It's an iPad world and Artie's a calculator watch. He has no clue how to relate to kids, especially these kids, with their interchangeable, androgynous names and experimental rearing.

Of course, there would be no conflict if everything went smoothly on the grandparents' visit, but because a few things actually pay off in admittedly small ways, it's a wonder Parental Guidance aims so low ... with and without the aluminum bat. For starters, it's good to see Bette Midler working again. Not great to see her again, but since The First Wives Club and Beaches are her only hits in the past 25 years, anything's better than nothing. She and Crystal can play off of each other pretty well, too, although there aren't many opportunities.

Crystal carries the film's bigger burden, but Artie is really an unlikable guy in many ways. He thinks that, instead of evolving with the times, the baseball team is wrong to look to the future. He also thinks his daughter is loopy for raising his grandkids in a nonconfrontational home, and while he goes along with her wishes when dealing with them, he's never genuine in his efforts and it's a constant wink to the audience about how today's parents are raising kids poorly prepared for a dog-eat-dog world. There is absolutely room for some of that but Parental Guidance seems to present each and every scenario relying on the same set of instructions.

There's not much successful comedy along the way, either, and that would certainly excuse a lot of the unchanging scenery here. Jokes about old people not understanding the apparently new-fangled wireless home phone won't get you too many laughs these days. But just to make sure you get that Artie is out of touch, his daughter's house is one digital contraption after another. The film's hip athlete cameo is Tony Hawk, who is now 44. Nothing against Hawk, but a movie about a baseball announcer (starring a former co-owner of the Diamondbacks) couldn't land a single MLB walk-on?

And of course, when all else fails, what does a lurching comedy do? It goes for the nuts. When you stop to think about it, this is a poetic fade for any comedian who reaches a certain vintage, loses his ticket-buying audience, or suffers any combination of the two. As if appearing in Parental Guidance wasn't its own kick in the tool shed, Billy Crystal must also endure the dumbest call-and-response in all of comedy.

So that's what you get. If you still—somehow, against every impulse of Darwinian thinking—find a swift knock to the crotch entertaining enough to spend $10 on (or what the hell, $30 or $40 since it's a family movie), just remember that this is how even less-inspired sequels get started.

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