The Shot Heard ‘Round the Cinema
Parental Guidance is the sort of film—a crowd-pleasing holiday release, mildly funny with a seemingly simplistic “family is good” message—that academic critics avoid like the plague. This is a tremendous mistake. Of three holiday releases—The Hobbit, This is 40, and Parental Guidance—the latter is the most sociologically significant.
There is little to guide us toward a film like Parental Guidance. Its stars have seen better days: Billy Crystal, from Saturday Night Live in the 1980s; Bette Midler, a cabaret singer whose fan base is mostly gay men; and Marisa Tomei, as George Costanza jokes on Seinfeld, “an Oscar winner, Jerry!” The film’s director is a mere metteur-en-scene, garnering steady work because of his competent helming of large amounts of Hollywood money. And yet, if we look more closely, and sympathetically, these two “deficits” help us understand the movie’s very successful project.
Andy Fickman’s most recent film, You Again (2010), also employs aging stars—Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, and the poster girl for show business longevity, Betty White—to weave a tale of multi-generational family redemption. And, more importantly, Parental Guidance uses the star personae of Bette Midler and particularly Billy Crystal to significant allegorical effect. It is a film about age and the American Dream, and despite its surface simplicity, catches the complexity of the failure of that mythology with startling precision.
The film’s set-up is dubious at best. Crystal plays Artie Decker, an old school minor league baseball play-by-play man who is fired at the end of the season by an owner who wants to reinvent his team by marketing to a more youthful demographic. Midler plays a woman who has subsumed herself to her husband, following him around for 30 years as he fails to get the call to the big leagues. The couple’s estranged yuppie daughter, Alice Simmons (Marisa Tomei) in a moment of desperation, invites the grandparents to babysit for her three kids. The kids’ high-tech upbringing clashes in a banal way with the grandparents’ old school child rearing techniques.
However, the script relies on associating every character up with a plot line about success, building a remarkable pool out of small droplets. Straight out of Harvey, the youngest child, Barker has an imaginary kangaroo friend whom everyone pretends exists, coddling the child into a false sense of security. The eldest, a daughter pushed by her mother into pursuing a violin career at Julliard, and the middle child, Turner, suffering from a mild stutter, fill out the minor cast of characters. They are matched by their parents: Alice, who despite being raised by her father, a baseball nut, is so estranged from him that she never bothers to even tell him she designs the website for ESPN; and her husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott), who wins an award for his electronic household controlling software, the celebration for which produces the need for the grandparents to babysit the grandkids.
The film aligns the controlling house with the stifling helicopter parenting of Alice and Phil; as the grandparents cannot fathom the house telling them what to do, they end up liberating the kids from their yuppie parents’ rigid rules. In one of the only really funny bits, ruined as in most films of this ilk by overplay in television trailers, Harper eats frosted cake for the first time as a result of Artie’s permissive grandparenting, leading the sugar-crazed teen to scream at her mother, “Yogurt not like ice cream! You lied!”
But the centerpiece of the film’s study of the failure of the American Dream is Artie. When he loses his job, his entire identity shatters. While he is supposed to be watching Barker, he steals his daughter’s contact at ESPN to try out as a TV announcer for the X-Games. His age is expressed by mistaking skateboarding legend as “Tony Hawkman”. By the end of the film, Artie comes to terms with his life, a failed balance between his professional life as a minor league announcer and his private family life, ignored in his quest for the majors. The end of the film teaches him that it is no failure to retire without ever broadcasting a major league baseball game, instead spending time with his family, attending to them in ways he never did when Alice was growing up.
The film collapses various success plotlines around Artie’s love of baseball. This is a terrific use of Billy Crystal’s star persona, famously devoted to America’s national pastime at a moment in history when it seems unlikely that the game can continue for much longer under the constant assault of hyper-violent football as the most carefully attended team sport in the United States. The film’s best scene involves Artie telling the stuttering middle-child, Turner about “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” a famous moment in baseball history when New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson hit a walk-off home run against the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds in New York City to win the final National League pennant playoff game on October 3, 1951. Crystal, clearly playing himself at this moment more than his character Artie, tells Turner to close his eyes and envision the events as he re-enacts the play-by-play. Fickman cuts to archival black-and-white footage of the home run, seemingly ruining Crystal’s appeal for Turner (and us) to use our imaginations.
However, the film redeems itself at the climax. As Harper tells her mother that she doesn’t want to audition at the absurdly pressure-filled violin try-out, Turner walks to the microphone instead, losing his stutter by re-enacting Artie’s rendition of the 1951 play-by-play. Fickman cuts to close-ups of both Artie and Alice mouthing the words along with the boy, forging the family’s strength as a unit in doing so.
The film documents how the big notions embodied in the American Dream cannot possibly come true for most of us: there are only a few spots at Julliard, and most of them go to the absurdly privileged. There are only a couple of dozen major league baseball announcers. Can we really believe that those who don’t attain these heights are failures? If so, then yours truly is a pathetic wastrel!
The nickname for Thomson’s home run comes from a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Concord Hymn” (1837), describing the onset of the American Revolution. The usage in also describing a baseball game is not an offense: it indicates that both the big and the small events of history are equally important in defining who we are as Americans. An American Dream that only acknowledges history book success woefully neglects that all sorts of family members behind the scenes toiled unappreciated by those who tell the stories of success.
Parental Guidance captures this middle-ground understanding of the American Dream with surprising precision. The film allegorizes such big questions in a number of ways. For example, the film’s engagement with geography supports this American Dream thematic. Artie announces for the Fresno, CA minor league team, while his daughter has fled to her yuppie life in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA. The film’s runaway production houses itself in Hollywood, but relies on the tax incentives related to shooting in the New South.
Coupled with the baseball story, about the New York Giants of the 1950s, and the present-day San Francisco Giants Artie dreams of announcing, the film precisely captures the geography of the American Dream’s failure: a burgeoning New York City of the late 19th century, home to immigrant dreams, fails but is replaced by the flight to California, land of milk and honey. When California collapses, the New South of the late 20th century lures people back east, only to suffer from the same fiscal disasters as everywhere else. And yet, through all of this economic strife, people continue to thrive, and love each other. I’ll take this message, an important sociological function of the cinema, over the smug irony of Judd Apatow’s This is 40 any time.
– Walter Metz