Parental Guidance offers a confused and flat portrayal of generational differences. Starring Billy Crystal and Bette Midler as a couple trying to reconnect with their estranged daughter, Alice (Marisa Tomei), and three grandchildren, the film has a setup with potential for all sorts of embarrassing antics: Old-fashioned grandparents help take care of over-coddled, over-achieving kids for a week in a computer-automated house (think HAL sans all the evil). But the filmmakers rarely let their imaginations run wild with the possibilities of such a scenario. Tiresomely, they prefer to single-mindedly focus on, well, actual running. When Artie (Crystal), recently let go from his job as a minor league baseball announcer in favor of a fresh new voice, sneaks the kids some sugar, they start scurrying around—and when the family goes to hear some Tchaikovsky, Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) takes off sprinting through the aisles.
Often it seems like the movie, structurally, is in a great rush, too, as its hasty editing barely leaves a beat between lines. This doesn’t help bring a listless script to life, though, and neither do most of the actors, with the exception of Bailee Madison, playing the oldest grandchild, Harper. In small moments, from her wide, natural smile after talking to a boy in school, to her scowl while endlessly practicing the violin, she provides the film’s brief and only sparks of sincere emotion. It’s hard to say, though, whether more heartfelt acting would have saved a film that still uses Tony Hawk and the X Games to represent youth culture and which has a relatively younger character ask, “When’s the last time you hashtagged?”
The film’s take on the older generation is equally imprecise. In one scene, Artie lays Barker across his knees, threatens to spank him in front of a concert hall full of people, and gives a speech about how kids today are given too much leeway. But this bland and generic argument about how modern parenting has left behind needed discipline eventually leads into an equal appeal for wholesomeness, a quality that doesn’t normally include spanking threats. Of course, the real end game here is for all the generations to get along, in which case the old methods also prove best. You may someday have a house that talks to you and makes breakfast for you, the movie warns us, but it will never teach you how to connect with your family. For that, nothing works like a good ol’ fashioned game of kick the can. Which is to say, not surprisingly, the film’s solution for family bonding comes down to running around the backyard.