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Parental Guidance

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'Parental Guidance': Lump of coal
By Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies

We should have seen it coming. "Parental Guidance" director Andy Fickman's previous family farce was "You Again," which this writer called "totally, inanely, numbingly awful .... From the evidence on-screen, [Fickman's] directorial skills might serve to mount a mediocre high school play." Now this hack is back, gifting us with another DOA comedy.

Pity anyone who heads out to take in "Guidance," billed as cheery comedy about the clash between old-school and contemporary child rearing, with heartwarming lessons to be learned by three generations of one fractured family. Parents and children blessed with an iota of gray matter or taste will storm the ticket booth to demand refunds. The only people sitting still for this overlong ordeal will be those brainwashed by bad TV sitcoms into yukking on cue at lowbrow comedy and cardboard clowns.

Search: More on Billy Crystal | More on Bette Midler

Alice and Phil Simmons (Marisa Tomei, mugging grotesquely, and Tom Everett Scott) are the type of "helicoptering" mommy and daddy who follow a strict program designed to produce perfect children. Off limits are sugar, competitive games, discipline, any kind of unscheduled fun that might derail the kids' constant grooming for future success. Forget straight talk: Communication is strictly PC, couched in neutered pseudo-therapeutic jargon: "Use your words" instead of getting mad and bashing a bully. Tempted to talk back? "Your opinion has value." Even the Simmons' house is programmed to nag like a nanny -- courtesy of dad's prizewinning invention.

The kids? Barker, the youngest (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf), has split his "acting-out" side off into an imaginary kangaroo named Carl, which everyone pretends is real. (The family's favorite "Pan-Asian" restaurateur goes postal, as only Gedde Watanabe can, when it appears he's run over Carl with his delivery truck.) Turner (Joshua Rush), the sad-eyed middle child, stutters, and "tightly wound" Harper (an engaging Bailee Madison) buries her spontaneous 12-year-old self every time it threatens her rigorous regimen of violin practice.

Get the picture? With material so potentially ripe for comedy, it requires supremely inept directing and acting to render it flat, heavy and obvious. And the arrival of grandpa Artie (Billy Crystal) and grandma Diane (Bette Midler), reluctantly enlisted by Alice to baby-sit during a much-needed vacation, fails to shake things up on the funny front. Diane is slightly cooler (you can tell because she takes pole-dancing lessons) than Artie, a minor-league baseball announcer just fired for being behind the times. Something has caused daughter Alice to go off her dad -- she gets an itchy rash whenever he's near. However, despite a late-night heart-to-heart that begins portentously enough -- "What happened to us, Dad?" -- it's never clear what that something is. Doesn't matter; it's just a MacGuffin to push the plot along.

Self-absorbed Artie -- or Farty, as the kids like to call him -- screws up child care at every turn and is the butt of many a crotch, pee and BM joke. In one fairly creepy scene he sits in a public toilet holding the littlest kid on his lap, crooning, "Come out, Mr. Doody, come out." Outside the booth, a grinning derelict sprawled on the floor keeps time while businessmen stand in pole-axed horror. Elsewhere, he literally risks his grandson's life -- as well as skater Tony Hawk's when he skids on a puddle of Barker's pee -- because he's too preoccupied auditioning for an impossible job to take a bathroom break. Side-splitting stuff.

Crystal's shtick, always dependent on flawless timing and knowing twinkle, looks like it's coming at you in slow-motion. Same with the tired patter he and Midler laboriously pitch and catch. And something awful has happened to the flesh of these comics' once-super-expressive mugs: It's gone all lumpy and frozen, whether from natural aging or surgical enhancement. Crystal and Midler look like it's heavy lifting to make their facial muscles move; and even in moments meant to be hilarious or touching, their eyes never light up. It's zombie comedy.

The movie does offer two or three honest laughs. In one climactic scene, Midler satisfyingly squashes an autocratic Russian music teacher: "Dr. Schveer, I shun you. You are shunned." Also, late in the film, Scott and Madison break out of the "Parental Guidance" waxworks to deliver some surprisingly human moments of emotion. The rest of this mishigas speaks to our lowest common denominator, intellectually, serio-comically, sentimentally, excrementally, you name it.

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Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.

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