RIORI Presents Installment #201: Andy Fickman’s “Parental Guidance” (2012)

The Film…

The Players…

Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott, with Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush, Kyle Breitkopf and Carl.

The Plot…

Great news! Alice’s tech genius hubs Phil has done it! His smart home software has been nominated for invention of the year! It’s rewarded him and Alice an all expenses paid business vacation! It’s been too long since they got away together, leaving behind work and chores and the kids!

The kids! Whose gonna watch the kids?!?

Reluctantly Alice calls her estranged parents, Diane and Artie, hoping they’ll do her and Phil a big solid. Could you mind the kids for a couple of days? Maybe a week?

Of course they would! It’s not like Artie’s in a career crisis or nothing, or Diane’s in light speed menopause, right? They’ll be there for their grandkids they almost never see, you bet! What could possibly go wrong?


The Rant…

Without question being a parent is hard work. However being a grandparent? That’s usually pretty free and easy. Allow me to explain the difference.

From the cradle to high school—and often beyond—raising kids is a very expensive affair, both with money and time. Diapers, shots, school, fashions, sniffles, puberty, birds, bees, and the omnipresent feeling of possible wreck and ruin/middling self-confidence that may make you question every moment in your kids young lives that you might be raising a psychopath. Do we flush dead goldfish Harry or bury him in the sandbox (best buy a sandbox first)? Where did junior get the idea that if he oversaturated his morning cereal into a technicolor sludge he can easily snuff it down rather than use a spoon (his teacher did, explaining the nose and throat are connected. Even you didn’t know that) because it tickles, “smells better” and always grosses out big sis? Your best and brightest got so pissed that the face recognition app on your iPhone XXXVIII didn’t work with Pokémon GO he tossed it in the toilet “to punish it for lying.” He stole the thing, BTW. Pika pika.

If all of that sounds ridiculous you’re right, and have never raised a child. Ever. Wouldn’t.

Being a mom or dad is costly. Your life as you knew it before kids is on permanent hiatus. You find yourself going to weird lengths to both satisfy and succor their wants and needs. I recall a time driving all over the county with my infant teething daughter in back quailing in pain on a desperate search for Anbesol. It fell like the desperate escape with the tanker truck at the end of The Road Warrior. When we finally found a CVS that carried the stuff the kid had fallen blissfully, frustratingly asleep.

Funny thing about dealing with your kids’ odd demands is that your kids secretly know when it’s a good time to push the envelope. Testing the boundaries is required as a child. It’s fun. It’s also a crapshoot ignoring the rules mom and dad laid down. When we were kids we all had stories. Most havoc wreaked was minor, but you know how parents get.

Like you I have a few tales to spin about trying parents’ patience, as did I and my siblings. Were you never a kid? Dig this.

One time when I was young I decided to make breakfast for everyone. Cream Of Wheat, the satisfyingly goopy hot cereal with the friendly chef on the box delivering the goods. That non-Newtonian bowlful is kinda like tofu: assumes the flavor of whatever you added to it, be it honey or butter or Sriracha. I planned on cooking a big batch for the fam with only the hubris a 10-year old Gordon Ramsay could have. I followed the instructions and kept an eye on the pot. Gosh, there was a lot of water in there. Better add some more cereal. And some more. Although I didn’t know this at the time, but what I was doing what physicists refer to as “achieving a critical mass.”

Half an hour of simmering later it was, “Hey! Look mom! I made Portland Cement in our kitchen!”

We had to throw the pot away. I was banned from breakfast duty for an indefinite period of time…even after I became a chef. My mom would always remind me of that fateful morning when I ever opt to make eggs and bacon. I pay income tax now.

Another time I took on some goofy kid experiment, but I had an accomplice. We heard somewhere that if you took your average baseball and heated it up real good you could hit it twice as far. Nifty, too bad we had no idea how to warm the thing up. We boiled a ball for a while, let it cool enough to handle and went outside. It fell flat and and spattered a lot of smelly water. Seemed that moisture was not the answer, so he suggested the microwave. We could dry out the ball and get it hot at the same time! I was hesitant; give me some credit. But it sounded doable, and we didn’t use his mother’s microwave.

Drum roll.

After my friend had split I stared balefully into the microwave. The seams had ripped open. The hide was stuck to the rack, like spent bandages. Turns out the guts of a Rawlings special is made up of a cork core enmeshed in what were essentially industry-strength rubber bands. When mom discovered our little Mythbusters experiment gone awry she did not the throw the machine out. It was later replaced and I gave up all hopes of being the next Cal Ripkin. And never allowed to use a microwave unsupervised ever again. Well into high school with my much tamer Pokemon habit. Pika?

It wasn’t always me testing the waters in my folks’ gene pool. If you’re a parent of multiple children, you understand that they have wiretapping down so much the CIA are envious. Here’s one more tale of trying the parents’ patience and quickly winnowing sanity. This time out I was not to blame.

It was Xmas time. The presents had been opened, and we were all just chilling by the fireplace. My aunt gave my sister a gift of a pack of those smelly, permanent markers. The kind you’d have in art class in school with abundant sheets of paper to draw whatever your heart desired or whatever conceptions your imagination could not wait to be freed. I was pleased for her. She was so delighted. She was four. She…

Paraphrasing Denis Leary it’s when it gets too quiet it’s too quiet. After about an hour of me jamming spent wrapping paper into the fireplace to watch the weird colored flames there came a screech. It was mom; I knew that screech too well. Someone unworthy released the Kraken. I darted away from my pyrotechnics display and followed the red alert. What I saw I knew I should not laugh at. I did anyway. Pikachu!

My little sis was found wielding a bright red Marks-A-Lot marker. One of those permanent markers, remember? Turned out to be very permanent. She chose her canvas to be the antique, snow white loveseat, rendering it a splattering red mess that Hannibal Lecter would’ve approved of. My mom howled as I giggled. Little sis was delighted with her work…which resulted in a ban on all markers in our house until at least my sophomore year of high school. My mom figured by then it was a tricky prospect for me to highlight texts in my schoolbooks with a Crayola.

All of this sh*t happens when you’re a parent. Good chance that even more ludicrous stories are floating around out there. Needless to say is that being a parent (at least a good part of it) involves expecting the unexpected hitch displacing a happy household by, say, covering up an antique piece of furniture with a blanket for years that no one ever really sat on anyway. Anbesol scarcity. Nuked baseballs. Cream of cement. All in a day’s work for harried mom and dad. I could go on, but why bother? These are tales told twice over twelve times.

Ah, but there’s the corollary. The “been there, done that” attitude and bemusement of grandparents. God bless ’em. If any of the above nightmare scenarios happened under their watch it would be a trip down memory lane. The passing years have since softened the blows. Storytelling and chuckles ensue and your mom and/or dad turn a curious beet red.

That’s what is truly great—if not revelatory—about your grandparents. They are the only people in the galaxy who will tell you the truth about your parents. A sample interaction:

Re: Kid brings home lousy report card.

Dad: “Look at this. When I was 12 I was getting straight A’s. Right, Pop?”

Pop: “When you were 12 you stole a car!”

Now here’s something I’m pretty sure you can relate to regarding a trip to Grandma’s: getting spoiled.

Whenever my fam came to visit my Mom’s parent’s place as a whelp I always knew there was to be a cornucopia of goodies waiting for me. Always chocolate chip cookies in their respective tin, nice and sweet and chewy cut from those clever Pillsbury logs and baked. Loads of attention deficient sugary cereals, which were all but verboten back home. Frosted Mini-Wheats, Frosted Flakes, Frosted Frosteds, whatever. Full candy dishes. Of course the freezer was loaded with whatever frozen confections that were big that week. Did I mention the soda vault? All free pickings for my sibs and me, and Mom and Dad could not stop us. Ha!

Grandparents spoil you. It’s their sworn duty. It’s all in fun. They already trudged through the Bataan Death March of parenting regarding your mom and dad. With lessons learned (and being totally done with diapers), time for the circus and delight to the grandkids. Recalling the blurb about grandparents quickly offering up a reality check regarding you parents, consider this scenario when mom and dad have a date night. Your parents tasks their parents to keep watch over the kids. Halfway through the night mom calls on her mom to see how they’re all faring:

Mom: Are the kids in bed yet?

Grandma: Hell’s no! We’ve been doing shots, eating ice cream and playing Nintendo! Just caught another one of those yellow mousy Pokémon things!

Mom: …A Pikachu?

Grandma: That’s it! We’re gonna have a taffy pull later! Right, kids?

Kids: Yay!

Grandma: When did you say you were getting back?

Mom: *dial tone*

Thanks, grandma (burp). Pass that Chunky Monkey my way.

All of that truck is obviously exaggeration, but not really. Grandparents are indeed designed to spoil their grandkids. It goes without saying. Whereas mom and dad can’t wait to lay into you as a kid, all grandparents wanna do is wait. Chill. Hang on your every word about the mundanities of school, friends, hobbies and how you call tell a boy Raichu from a girl Raichu based on their tails. Gram and Pops were always very into your whatever you were into all the time. That kind of love and hospitality goes well beyond childhood. For instance, in college I pledged a fraternity, got in and even served as vice prez for a semester. This was a gateway drug to Pops, who also was a fraternity back in the day at the University of Miami, Illinois. He shared with me some stories about his college days—very few printable here—as soon as I told some of my very weak frat house antics, like sponsoring blood drives and duking it out with the Engineering house for the best GPA every quarter. Of his few tales of his salad days included putting Jello in some unsuspecting pledge’s toilet, and a prank involving a tray from the cafeteria, a full bladder and a very cold day. Refer to the Comments link for recipes.

Finally—can’t stress this enough—grandparents always gave the best gifts. My grandma helped me complete my Transformers’ Aerialbot (the airplanes) and Protectobot (the emergency vehicles) collections, always got me the Lego set I needed every Xmas and scored me the killer app for the NES: the original Metroid. Just because she paid attention to my idle wishing. However I’m now not speaking of the material goodies Gram and Pops hopefully lavished upon you. No, I’m on about the real value they imbued on you as children. The following may sound all Hallmark Channel, but it’s not. If you think about it it’s very not.

Gram and Pops absolutely adore you, but are also adept at instilling a few values in you as a kid. Mom and Dad might still being parenting around, but their folks are old hands. Gunslingers. No bullsh*ting the bullsh*ters. And above all else regarding how parents treat their little snowflakes like the potential Nobel Prize winners Mom and aspire them to be, Grandma and Grandpa have no such fallacies. Why?

They’re not their kids!

While Mommy and Daddy hover, trying to raise the juniors right and to avoid the aforementioned sociopathy, the grands understood their brood didn’t kill anyone (as far as they knew) so should follow them. Namely while mom and dad were overly concerned with their kids sugar intake affecting their grades Gramma would sit back and watch the little buggers pour From Loops down their throats and up their noses until they barfed up a technicolor rainbow. All the while with crossed arms of amusement and satisfaction.

“Now kids, what did we learn?”

Us grandkids learned the value of a gloved fist, followed by an implied lecture of self-control. If any of you out there can relate to this metaphor then you had astute grandparents. My grandma taught me a lesson about courtesy and respect by simply commenting to my father how her feelings were hurt when I didn’t care for my LL Bean thermal vest and dropped it on the floor. That’s what I overheard. My 80-something grandmother politely announcing her feelings were hurt by my inchoate selfishness. I wore the thing every winter since that time and eventually was a hand-me-down to my Dad. It was just the right amount of warm, which I swiftly grew to appreciate. As did my father, because hey, LL Bean.

In that weird moment I felt so shoddy about myself (but unsure as to why) I snapped to. Grandma was quick to cheer up. Was I trolled? All these years later maybe I was, but it taught me a lesson faster than any unwanted smack upside the head ever did. And my folks smacked my bitch up a lot to the point social graces never took hold. Not like that comfy vest, and my grandma’s practiced hangdog.

Such an example suggests the bottom line as to what values grandparents can imbue on us. Using the proper influence at the right time, when a passive learning opportunity arises. An opportunity the seniors might have wished was available when their rugrats got a little too aggro, a little too curious, a little too mouthy and out of paternal reflex yanked that fork out of the toddler’s claw before he truly learned what a power trip was bothering that electrical outlet with the smiley face.

However—and this is a BIG however—such solid tales of building character and gradually appreciating LL Bean mean nothing, nothing, if Gram and Pops are unable to stir the soup. By this I mean, well, mom and dad may be embarrassed by their parents’ rampaging style of permissiveness cluttering the kiddies’ imagination. Spoil them with unwarranted ice cream, Legos and more ice cream…then show precious little pity when the stomachaches kick in and the soles of the feet are sharply tortured locating that missing piece when you dropped your spaceship on the kitchen floor. The grandparents have seen it all before; let’s let the kiddies learn their lessons on their own. Sometimes not helping is help, and guilt can be a powerful teacher.

Your folks, despite all their good intentions cannot hold a candle to Gramma and Pop’s passive aggressive lessons about life, the universe and everything. They may try to repeat, deny or even emulate what their parents did for them as onto you, but the g’rents will always stir things up in the best possible way for the next generation. Be it embarrassing Mom and Dad, sharing devious tales of wreck and ruin from some salad days, or perhaps getting beaned in the head with Grammy’s best pot, which you cooked cement in. Learning opportunities abound.

Like finding out almond milk sucks…

The Story…

Alice (Tomei) is in a fix. Her tech wiz husband Phil (Scott) has just gotten a grant—as well as an award—for his smart house software to be approved for the mass market. This is great! So great in fact that Phil and Alice have been offered an all expenses paid junket to this year’s E3 in Hilton Head, SC, rife with all those pesky golf courses, pristine beaches and nightlife galore.

It’s been ages since career climbing Alice and Phil have had a vacation, so this looks like the brass ring. Why not get away from it all? Well, there’s a few reasons. Three actually. The kids Harper (Madison), Turner (Rush) and Barker (Brietkopf). If Alice and Phil are going to jaunt off to South Carolina, who’s going to marshal the troops?

Phil makes the suggestion, “What about your folks?” With great reluctance, Alice calls on her parents. The motormouth Artie (Crystal) and the freewheeling Diane (Midler), the twin black sheep of the Decker clan as far as Alice can see it.

Artie’s going through some professional crisis, and Diane really wants to bond as a grandma should with her daughter’s decidedly distant kids. Not to mention Artie really isn’t into Alice’s good graces. She runs her family as upwardly urbane one can get in the 21st Century. Her kids have it all prepared for them. Healthy food, after school activities, music lessons, strict adherence to both manners and being in touch with their emotions. All that the Simmons’ kids need to be the ideal offspring are full frontal lobotomies. Alice is already adept at brainwashing.

The grandparents Decker accept the challenge. Diane can’t wait to bond with her grandchildren and show them a time! Artie’s not so sure that all will be puppy dogs and ice cream, but the job as grandpa is better than no job at all.

All he has to do is avoid all those “red words” that come so naturally…

The Review…

This is one of those installments that comes across as negative but results in saying I liked the flick. I’m tired of keeping my cards against my chest. I know my stock in trade is to first lambast then praise. Pro movie critics do this for a living. Want me to shift in gears? Pay me. I will accept my weight in beer and/or Reuben sandwiches.

Guidance isa guilty pleasure. K recommended it out of her library and it fit The Standard so here we are. Movies like these are not the kind I usually gravitate towards. Don’t get me wrong. I really like Billy Crystal’s motormouth delivery, but family hijinks are a dime a dozen in comedies, regardless casting any seasoned SNL alums. Same plot, different cast. There’s always a formula at work here. It’s funny one, but always smacks of something else (read: Uncle Buck, Mrs Doubtfire, Cheaper By The Dozen etc). All fun films sure, but do I need to remind you how the blues are played? Again? Same goes here with Guidance.

Being a family comedy stereotyping runs riot with Guidance. One could call it a character study, albeit one note applying to all the players. I’m not making that call. Basic roles were what we got, you betcha. Stereotypes, because what to we say about stereotyping? Right, it’s quicker, and this piece of family fluff does not require much development. What you see is what you get. It’s kinda like comfort food in a way. Familiar, but heck, a lot of the movie relates to all of us. At least those of us that were raised by a family.

That being said, a real non-surprise here is Guidance stuck to a formula. Like I said: sure it was amusing, but hardly original. Guidance borrowed the best bits from innumerable “relatively fishy relative out of water” movies like again Uncle Buck, Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead and even the original Mary Poppins if you think about it. Such a formula works because, well, consider the above grandparent tales; sometimes that fish really wants to nibble the bait. We root for the underdog grandparents to stir the pot and show the kids what fun really is against the neurotic parents’ discipline. We all know what we’re getting into with a flick like Guidance, so best enjoy the ride. You kinda asked for it. It’s predictable, but also relatable. So no great moral ground was broken here, thank God. No heavy scrutiny of the human condition. A few messages may have been tossed about, but none with any real circumstance (save Carl’s REDACTED). Guidance was fluffy, as should most family mishap movies be. As I said, I found this flick to be a guilty pleasure. Besides if I wanted Werner Herzog I’d watch Grizzly Man for the umpteenth time. This time out I needed an imaginary kangaroo. Who doesn’t now and again?

A major part of Guidance deals with role models and their clay. It was a no-brainer that the kids acted like grown-ups and the adults behaved under the influence of Peter Pan-esque denial. For example, Artie was still pursuing his childhood dream, even at the expense of his moody grandkid. Phil loved his tech goodies at the risk of turning his extended family into guinea pigs with no alfalfa pellets to be seen, let alone his smart house almost as inviting as a holodeck programmed by Ray Bradbury. If the kids were any more structured they would be industrial engineers before hitting puberty. Even Alice was living vicariously through her kids treating them as she wished she was treated by her supposed unhinged ‘rents. If any of you out there are familiar with classic, dopey sitcom Three’s Company what with its miscommunication gags, Guidance may be right up your alley. The entire cast is best viewed through a lens smeared with Vaseline. To quote Billy Joel, “…the good ole days weren’t always good.
And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” To overemphasize this the g’rents were back in the good old days. Read: rearing your mom and dad. If there was any underlying message to Guidance it was no parent knows everything, they just want the kids to be kids and not grow up to be criminals. Or influencers. Or whatever takes a plop on your freshly washed car.

Despite all the sight gags, pratfalls and, well, Billy Crystal being himself there was a clever skewering of the 21st Century practice of “helicopter parenting.” For those of you who never heard of this blight on modern parenting—which is rather like the real life version of one’s acting on social media leaks into the real world—it’s where the overly informed moms and dads react seriously to all the potential BS the internet feeds them so as to raise their kids in a bubble. Call it passive eugenics, raising kids to never experience stress and strain that may ruin their self-esteem and totally not prepare them for the real world. Stuff like bullies and traffic and gluten exist, and held-parents do their best to be a detriment to their brood all in the name of no one striking out. Ever. On anything. Ever.

Big whoops there. Luckily director Fickman played that sham up for all it was worth. Any thinking parent (or person) knows you can’t shield your kid from every single trial and tribulation. That’s a part of growing up, and in the endgame building character is much more useful than, say, winning an award for someone else winning an award. It was a curious mess that Tomei’s Alice was all for modern parenting, which meant micromanaging every aspect of her kids in school and after school activities (certain activities came off as more for mom’s satisfaction in seeing her flock well-rounded rather than having fun). Alice made an argument about how “irresponsible” parents Artie and Diane ruined her by spoiling her, but then that being spoiled has chomped her on the ass. Alice is not the head of the household, her hydra children are. Everything was so about them that she lost perspective, as well as avoiding getting dirty hands too much, too often. From imaginary kangaroos with social security cards to speech therapy with no actual speech to violin lessons under the tutelage of Eva Braun’s distant cousin, what Alice deemed as proper for her kids played hell on her brain…which eventually looked like she wasn’t a mom anymore, or even a life coach. Alice became an image consultant, but for what agency? Fickman never shamed Alice for her misguided approach to parenting. He just did a send up as to how freaking ridiculous helicopter parenting was. It didn’t do much good for the Becker clan, and sure as sh*t rendered Alice enervated and all at sea. If Guidance was approaching some message, well there you have it.

Here’s a different, simpler tack. Watching Guidance deconstructed parenting as often surrendering to the chaos, if not embrace it. I hoped I was hearing PC parenting in its death knell.  It is now relevant to remind you that there are no perfect parents, which is why Alice was so ridiculous as the neurotic mother, piling on therapy and after school activities as panacea to any possible damage her brood might be up against. Read: again, avoiding the unpleasant thing that is reality. Such a mindset is ludicrous as it comical in a finger-pointing way. Surprisingly, Tomei’s overextended mom didn’t exactly hover over everything her brood did under a watchful eye. In a comical way Alice paired with the smart house came across like a demented Big Brother. Regarding grandparent wit, one simply cannot plan for everything. Read: lotsa physical comedy ensues. Fish out of water meets the Otto pilot from WALL-E. Right, kinda silly against kinda stomping OCD into a puddle.

Enough social commentary. The cast. I really dug the cast. Especially the kids. They were delightful. No moppets there, but actual young actors. In essence, Harper, Barker and Turner weren’t ciphers. Yes, they were adorable, but they had presence. It’s hard to pull that off. The kiddies were simple kiddies, but also had unique personalities. Obeying the plot they found unique voices based against Alice’s well-meaning meddling. The road to hell and alla dat. In a perverted sort of way, Alice’s molding of her kids made themselves superstars under Artie and Diane’s roguish, full dairy product ways. The kids wouldn’t of blossomed unless the g’rents unleashed their dirty influences. Recall my five-and-dime analogy.

I found it kinda funny when snarky Crystal and brassy Midler actually reigned it all in and could be endearing and sincere. Neither of these actors are renown for their subtlety or restraint. To this point I don’t know how they pulled off that trick of being both nervous and ebullient embracing grandparenthood. Of course it helped that uptight mom (Tomei was a pretty insecure kid herself) wasn’t around, so cake, Saw movies and rampant permissiveness broke the ice. The end product of pairing solid kid actors with usually madcap grown-up actors resulted in some sweet success without being cloying. That’s a hard line to tow (EG: My Girl, The Man Without A Face, and hell even Good Will Hunting), and this pastiche managed to pass with a bouquet.

Another surprising point I noticed (after the fact) was that Guidance had good pacing, almost seamless. The film flew by like quicksilver, not like sh*t through a goose with cholera but bounced along with a lively tempo. Again I cannot lie, movies like this aren’t really for me because of their formula, but since Guidance‘s formula took some risks (again, hiring kids that could act and Tomei being the unwitting antagonist) there was just enough elan to keep the crap engaging. And yes, I adored the karaoke scene a lot of fun in spite of myself and the kinda left field feeling that my g’rents often did. Non sequiturs in the proper context.

Truth be told I was stunned that I dug Guidance  I viewed it twice. Partially for Crystal’s exasperated, sarcastic one-liners, but also for a nostalgia trip. Yeah, yeah. Not every kid had cool, parent shuddering grandparents. Be it wish fulfillment, memory lane or just flat out about Dad stealing a car, Guidance was a first in my mind. Grandparents took center stage, and not like with On Golden Pond.

And no, no animals were harmed in this movie by having their face sucked. 😉

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a surprisingly good time. Crystal does Crystal (if you’re a fan of that) for the kids that are kids. And Midler spits venom if the devil’s eye. You may dig this as your parents may wince.

The Musings…

  • Eggless egg salad?
  • “They don’t know you well enough to not like you.”
  • K: Who knew imaginary kangaroos would need a doctor?
  • “Cake…”
  • Pretty nice Tony Hawk cameo. It furthered the plot some.
  • “Get your taser ready.” Double take.
  • That “nobody’s out” version of Little League is anathema. Artie’s schpiel was right on.
  • “Noodles!”
  • Best version of “The Book Of Love” I’ve ever heard. 🙂
  • “It’s 9 AM; I need a martini!”
  • K: Artie finally got to announce for the “Giants.”
  • “Call me Grandpa.”
  • For the curious: Pikachu roughly translates from Japanese as “spark mouse.”
  • “Lights out, Alice.”

The Next Time…

Visa debt notwithstanding, The Confessions Of A Shopaholic are nakedly telling.