Playing ball ... Joshua Rush, Billy Crystal and Kyle Harrison Breitkopf in Parental Guidance. Photo: Phil Caruso
It is fair to say that there are two dominant forces in movie demographics, pulling in opposite directions. On one hand, movies are aiming younger in all sorts of genres - from vampire movies to blockbusters about wizards and superheroes. This trend is most obvious in animation, where there is a relentless climate of technical innovation and a tendency to embrace darker subject matter for younger viewers - as in Tim Burton's recent Frankenweenie.
On the other hand, the population of most Western countries is ageing, so there's a market in those who weren't born yesterday. Films such as Quartet and Trouble with the Curve cater to the viewer of a certain age. Indeed, the art-house market in general targets much older viewers than it once did. The result is that some art-house movies have become more conservative, not to say genteel. It's not so much art-house as old-house. I could argue that the last thing we need is another Maggie Smith/Judi Dench vehicle, but the box office would disagree.
Many of these films come from Britain, where the idea of films for adults has never disappeared. Parental Guidance comes from the US, but here too the idea of the ''senior star'' is constantly evolving. Eastwood is 82, De Niro is 69, Streep is 63, but each still sells a lot of tickets. Their films are often about ageing, which makes sense: the audience is thinking about the same things.
Parental Guidance is about grandparenting, as much as it is about parenting. Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, as Artie and Diane Decker, leave their home in California to look after their daughter's three children, in Atlanta, Georgia, for a week. Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott play the parents, Alice and Phil Simmons, who haven't had a holiday alone for a decade or more.
It is fair to say that the two generations do not agree on anything to do with raising children. Alice comes out in a rash just thinking about her parents being in the same city; her father Artie has very little in common with small children. Alice is overprotective, controlling and pumped full of modern ''best practice'' theories. Ma and Pa Decker are old school, believing in rough-house play, lots of candy and the word ''no''. The kids, Barker, Turner and Harper (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf, Joshua Rush and Bailee Madison) have hardly heard that word.
The film is funny, sentimental, ham-fisted, likeable and exasperating all at once. Crystal and Midler can count on great audience loyalty, built over decades, but this film will test it. Both have been in semi-retirement and we may assume that they would not have agreed to do the movie unless for good personal reason. The film originated with Crystal looking after his own grandchildren. He and Midler hadn't worked together in a movie, despite a 30-year friendship, which may explain her participation.
There's also baseball. A love of baseball binds the film together across generations and there are few actors who love baseball more than Billy Crystal. He won a baseball scholarship to college and was aiming to become professional before he focused on comedy. He owns a share in an Arizona team, and he directed 61*, a TV movie set in the summer of 1961 when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris went after Babe Ruth's batting record of 60 home runs.
In Parental Guidance, Artie is a baseball broadcaster, ''da voice'' of the Fresno Grizzlies, a minor-league team. He still dreams of making it to the majors as a broadcaster; instead, the team sacks him at the end of a lacklustre season. The managers want a new sound, someone who understands Twitter and social media. ''I'll tweet, I'll make whatever noise you want,'' he pleads. The loss of a job makes his character tetchier, and less than careful with children. His love of baseball eventually allows him to find a way back to his grandkids.
Even though it's a comedy, the film is full of accusations aimed at modern parents. Tomei's character smothers her children. The kids are neurotic and unhappy because the mother thinks her parents made a lot of mistakes. All of that tells us pretty clearly who the film is aimed at, and why the portrayal of a young mother seems so unforgiving.
The film is amusing and, while it resists gross sentiment, it is fun to see the two veterans wisecracking and hamming it up. There is little left in the mind after the train passes, but that might be me. 'Tis the season of ''bah humbug''.
Directed by Andy Fickman
Rated PG, 105 minutes