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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Parental Guidance' provides naughty but safe slapstick humor

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Special Photo: Fox Artie and Diane (Billy Crystal, Bette Midler) debate whether to accept their daughteris invitation to babysit their grandkids.

2 out of 4 stars

(PG)

The last movie screened this year, "Parental Guidance" wins the unofficial "most suitable family Christmas flick of 2012" purely out of default. When your competition is sub-par non-comedies with questionable, often sullen content, anything that elicits even the feeblest of giggles without totally wallowing in offensive humor deserves some degree of credit. Call it the leper with the most fingers.

When going into a movie where Billy Crystal and Bette Midler are the co-leads playing retiring grandparents, one would be wise to keep their expectations on the low side. The 64-year-old Crystal and the 67-year-old Midler -- who both built their long careers on the Borsch-Belt/Catskills/Vaudevillian comic foundations -- each rely heavily on broad shtick and bug-eyed, extra-loud reaction shots. There are few that do this kind of thing better than these two, which is not necessarily a compliment. One kvetching camera-mugger per movie is quite enough; two is beyond overload.

As is often the case with family comedies, there is a worthwhile message floating somewhere on the surface that it is not only ripe for laughs but also provides significant social food for thought. Unfortunately what starts out on the surface soon gets buried beneath an avalanche of pratfalls, bodily function humor and the type of sight gags only 8-year-old boys can fully appreciate.

When her husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) lets her know they'll need to get her parents to watch their three kids for a week while they take a business-based vacation, Alice (Marisa Tomei) breaks out in a rash and starts to hyperventilate. She's leery that her parents' old school ideas regarding child-rearing fly directly in the face of their touchy-feely, ultra-PC/progressive ideals and is hesitant to make the call.

With no other options available, Alice contacts mother Diane (Midler) and her recently-fired baseball announcer father Artie (Crystal) to come to Atlanta to watch over their brood. Artie would rather not but Diane, wanting to no longer be considered the "other grandparents" jumps at the chance. Also none too thrilled are the grandchildren: overachieving daughter Harper (Bailee Madison), introvert middle child Turner (Joshua Rush) and the precocious redheaded third child Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) who has an invisible friend and more than lives up to his moniker.

The children are not allowed to have sugar, gluten and dairy and, according to Artie, any fun. Living in a hermetic home operated by an ominous talking computer invented by Phil, the family is forever on a schedule that leaves no one room to breathe. Alice and Phil have eliminated words like "no" and "don't" from their vocabulary and "Chinese food" is referred to as "pan-Asian." Everyone's always a winner, no one loses and no one is ever wrong.

Torn between introducing the kids to the Baby-Boomer perspective of life, discipline and other supposedly arcane concepts and being perceived as "cool," Artie usually takes the easy way out by buying the children's silence or getting punished for speaking the truth.

When he finds out that three strikes does not mean you're out in the new-age baseball little league, he becomes unglued, voices his displeasure and is swiftly hit in his nether regions with an aluminum bat. He reacts (involuntarily) by vomiting on the child that wacked him. What could possibly be funnier than that? Maybe getting stuck in a decrepit MARTA bathroom with a child with constipation?

In the movie's most (only) thought-provoking scene, Artie chases Barker up and down the aisles of the Cobb Energy Center during a recital and eventually becomes so flustered he places the child over his knee and almost -- almost spanks him. Because this is a family Christmas comedy, the spanking of a child would spell certain box-office suicide so it never happens.

Because it is mostly light-hearted and not completely inane, "Parental Guidance" barely clears the fence and does exactly what it is supposed to do. It provides fleeting escapism and the type of naughty but safe slapstick humor that will tickle children senseless. They'll laugh a lot and you'll groan a little. (Fox)