"Parental Guidance," starring Billy Crystal and Bette Midler as old-fashioned grandparents taking on three thoroughly modern kids, is nothing if not well-timed. It pokes fun at the new school of touchy-feely child-rearing, and it arrives during a Christmas season strangely lacking in family fare. If you're looking for an all-ages crowd-pleaser, this may be your best bet.
Though only mildly amusing and slightly insightful, "Parental Guidance" makes good use of Crystal, 62, and Midler, 67, appealing faces that have been largely absent from the movies of late. Crystal plays Artie Decker, a cornball commentator for the minor league Fresno Grizzlies; Midler is his wife, Diane, a still-vivacious former weathergirl. They fit their roles well -- Crystal is a well-known baseball fan -- and also wear each other quite comfortably, though this is their first film together.
Marisa Tomei plays their Atlanta-based daughter, Alice, a hover-mother to three aspirationally named but troubled children. Harper (Bailee Madison) is a self-flagellating vioilin prodigy, Turner (Joshua Rush) has a stutter and Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) is bossed around by an imaginary friend. When Alice and her husband (Tom Everett Scott) take a much-needed vacation, the elder Deckers fly in to watch the kids.
Most of the jokes hinge on Artie's inability to understand why tough love is out, therapy is in and "quit whining" has become "use your words." To his horror, even in Little League three strikes no longer mean out. "But that's stupid," Artie tells the ump. "You know, because of the song?"
Director Andy Fickman knows he can't side completely with the Deckers -- you didn't expect a Hollywood movie to advocate spanking, did you? -- but "Parental Guidance" does its best to find a middle ground. For moviegoing families at the moment, that might be enough.
PLOT Two grandparents take on three young charges, only to discover that child-rearing ain't what it used to be.
RATING PG (mild rude humor)
BOTTOM LINE Crystal and Midler, together for the first time, are cozy as old slippers in this family-friendly comedy. No great shakes, but occasionally amusing.