Bette Midler knows how to play a brassy broad: she has made a career out of playing characters that are anything but delicate wallflowers. Sadly, in recent years she has been most absent from movie theaters. Her last onscreen role was in the hapless 2008 remake of "The Women," with not many other films credits in the last decade. With her comeback in the charming "Parental Guidance," she instantly reminds audiences why she has been missed and demands the spotlight be focused directly on her.
The actress isn’t straying far from her wheel house by taking on the role of Diane, a grandmother who agrees to babysit her grandchildren as a way to get to know them while their parents are away receiving an award. Diane is a former television "weather girl who knows a thing or two about having a good time and has the, sometimes inappropriate, stories to prove it. As you might be able to guess, things don’t exactly go smoothly for the absent grandparents when they are dropped into the lives of their tightly wound grandchildren who suffer from having overbearing, helicopter parents.
When things go awry onscreen, Midler is her best. She’s proven time and again that she is as adept at throwing barbed zingers as she is at mining chaos for comic gold. Make no mistake; while she is surrounded by heavy hitters like Billy Crystal (who also serves as a producer) and Marisa Tomei, this is Midler’s picture. She owns the film and spotlight here, but makes it look effortless.
"Parental Guidance" is reminiscent of the family comedies from the 1980s. Sure, you can count the beats of the paint by numbers plot, but its harmless fun so you’ll be busy trying to keep the smile from creeping across your face. All of the mainstay questions from the genre are here: will the wise-beyond-her years teenager connect with her peers? Can the free spirited parents and their polar opposite daughter find some common ground before the credits roll? And what about that precocious child with a near-homicidal bladder problem? Well, that last one might be unique, but you get the point. This is family viewing in a way that doesn’t come around too often anymore and it would be a shame to miss out on it.
Some of the points about the dysfunction between Tomei and her parents are handled with too heavy a hand. She blames them for her unsettled childhood and has become an overbearing, coddling mother who doesn’t trust her parents to care for her children for a few days. Crystal’s Artie is at the center of most of his extended family’s problems, due to his unwillingness to give up on his dream of announcing for the San Francisco Giants, but doesn’t realize he has always put himself ahead of his family.
With a running time of almost two hours, "Parental Guidance" could have used a slight edit. The jokes about Artie’s age get old fast, and an early scene where he is being fired for not being on social media is wince-worthy. But that’s the film’s Achilles heel: screenwriters Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse ("Surf’s Up") take the easy way out rather than trying to find the more clever way to get to a joke or convey something in the film.
"Parental Guidance" is the cinematic equivalent to comfort food, that is, you know what you are getting. Because you have always enjoyed it before, you are going to enjoy it here; but there isn’t anything new. The filmmakers know exactly where to place a punchline or emotional moment to maximize its effect. And it’s that mentality of replaying these knee-jerk cues that keeps the film from truly being great.