Billy Crystal was born a sappy old Jewish man. He undoubtedly tumbled out of the womb already nursing a deep nostalgia for the good old days when Frank Sinatra crooned with Tommy Dorsey, Joe DiMaggio patrolled center field for God’s own New York Yankees, and nothing in the world tasted better than a hot dog at Yankee Stadium on a Sunday afternoon with the folks. The young Crystal wasn’t mature or precocious so much as corny and old-fashioned, even as a young man with a stand-up act redolent of the Catskills. Now, after an exceedingly welcome extended stay away from the multiplexes—think of all the terrible movies society avoided by virtue of his absence!—Crystal’s chronological age has caught up with his perpetually geriatric sensibility; he’s a doddering senior citizen on the outside as well as the inside. Consequently, he’s perfectly suited to produce and star in the wholesome family comedy Parental Guidance, which might as well be called AARP Presents: Billy Crystal Is Old, And What’s Going On With All The Facebooking And Twittering And iPods?
In a role that suits him as snugly as an old pair of slippers that should be thrown away, Crystal plays a husband and father of a certain age whose life revolves around his job as a minor-league baseball announcer until his boss fires him for being insufficiently adroit with Twitter and Facebook. Crystal falls into an exceedingly minor funk, until he has an opportunity to bond with his grandchildren after skittish mother Marisa Tomei reluctantly agrees to leave them in the care of Crystal and wife Bette Midler, another show-business lifer who treats her puzzled progeny with the same brassy razzamatazz that wowed them at the bathhouses in the early 1970s.
Crystal isn’t the only element of Parental Guidance that is hilariously dated. Change a few already-tired details like iPhone apps, the X-Games, and a cameo from Tony Hawk (the film’s idea of a hip young celebrity all the kids are grooving on), and Parental Guidance could just as easily be a film from the 1970s about 1950s New York parents dealing with the kooky hippie parenting of the younger generation, or a 1980s culture-clash farce about loveable traditionalists coping with New Age parents who favor touchy-feely therapy-speak instead of good old-fashioned spanking. But the film’s ham-fisted oscillation between schmaltz and scatology indelibly marks it as a product of Crystal’s hokey, mothballed sensibility. He never needs an excuse to lay on the sentimentality, and Parental Guidance sees no reason a film can’t shoehorn in a life lesson every 10 minutes, between crude gags involving peeing, Crystal vomiting on a small child after taking a bat to the testicles, and a lot of tired business centering on an imaginary kangaroo and Gedde Watanabe, continuing his careerlong tribute to Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Crystal hasn’t improved with age, he’s atrophied. And Parental Guidance is the abysmal grandpa/grandkids bonding comedy he’s been destined to make since he first started creating new comedy with an unmistakable old-person smell.