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PARENTAL GUIDANCE

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A movie about grandparents made for grandparents, “Parental Guidance” might as well have been titled “Granddaddy Day Care.” It provides a bland, predictable vehicle for what might have been the inspired pairing of Billy Crystal and Bette Midler—sitcom quality holiday fare that would be totally innocuous were it not for the now-obligatory presence in “family” fare of potty humor, projectile vomiting and comic slapstick (including, of course, the requisite crotch-punch). Very young children, grandpa and grandma may be amused by the combination of mildly naughty comedy and broad sentiment, but everybody else will find it instantly forgettable.

The script is credited to Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse (known for their screenplay for the drab animated picture “Surf’s Up”), but the impetus came from Crystal, and he clearly provided much of his own characteristically rapid-fire dialogue. The set-up is as simple as any cookie-cutter seventies sitcom. Helicopter parents Alice and Phil Simmons (Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott) want to go off together to a convention where he’s to get an award, but his trusted parents—who usually baby-sit—are unavailable. So despite Alice’s reluctance, they invite “the other grandparents,” who’ve never been close to the kids, to pick up the slack.

The Deckers are a brash pair. Diane (Midler) is, as one would expect from the casting, an outsized personality, but she wants to seize the opportunity to bond with the children. But the real problem is Artie (Crystal), a motor-mouth who’s for years been the announcer for a minor-league baseball team while yearning to make it to the majors. (How the couple affords such a splendid suburban abode on the salary such a job must provide is a mystery.) But he’s just been fired, and doesn’t want Alice to find out. Anyway, he and the kids have never connected. (For one thing, they understandably find his Borscht Belt shtick incomprehensible.) Nonetheless, the Deckers accept the responsibility.

The result is just about what you’d expect. The grandparents clash with Annie—who’s reluctant to leave—on child-rearing tactics. While she pushes daughter Harper (Bailee Madison) to practice her violin incessantly, Diane clashes with the girl’s imperious teacher and urges her granddaughter to have some fun. While his daughter obsesses over her older son Turner (Joshua Rush), who has a stuttering problem, Artie confronts his speech teacher over her methods. And pint-sized entrepreneur Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) blackmails Artie repeatedly when he finds out about his misdeeds and demands recognition of his invisible pal, a kangaroo named Carl. There are also clashes over diet—the Simmons ban sugary treats while Artie feeds the kids cake that sends them into overdrive, and there’s an especially lame subplot about the family’s favorite pan-Asian restaurant presided over by a stereotype named Chang (Gedde Watanabe, the go-to guy for such embarrassing roles).

Of course the grandparents and kids ultimately find familial affection—though such methods, if you can believe it, as staging a game of kick the can in the backyard and teaching Turner to rattle off an archival recording of a baseball announcer’s famous outburst at the close of a World Series’ game. And Annie learns to respect her parents’ different approach while making up with the father she always felt ignored her. But there are plenty of sidebars in the script along the way. In a gag stolen from Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle” but badly flubbed, the Deckers are confounded the Simmons house, which is equipped with all sorts of modern gadgets. Artie takes Barker along on an audition with ESPN where he makes a fool of himself trying to look cool and the kid pees on Tony Hawk’s skateboard ramp and makes him fall down. In another potty-related episode, Artie accompanies Barker to a public restroom and sings to the kid in the stall, to the shock of everyone around. And there’s the tee-ball game where Artie makes a scene, leading the bully who’s been bothering Turner to wallop the old guy in the balls—but Artie gets even, and more, with the kid fast by responding to the assault by throwing up his hotdog all over the tyke’s face.

All of this is feeble stuff, and it’s made even weaker by the lackadaisical direction of Andy Fickman, who at one point simply stops things to allow for a supposedly impromptu duet between Crystal and Midler and draws cable-TV-level turns from the kids and the rest of the supporting cast. The behind-the-camera contributions are strictly mediocre, from Dean Semier’s cinematography and David J. Bomba’s production design to Marc Shaiman’s nondescript score.

There’s a place for movies like this—but it’s really on a family-oriented cable channel rather than in the multiplex.

JACK REACHER

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The hero—antihero, if you prefer—of this action flick based on one of the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child was, from the description on the printed page, somebody who might have been played by a young Dolph Lundgren—a tall, very brawny as well as brainy bruiser. Christopher McQuarrie’s adaptation stars Tom Cruise, who—let’s face it—doesn’t exactly fit that bill. The discrepancy, however, isn’t the fundamental reason that “Jack Reacher” turns out to be pretty much a bummer. Cruise gives the character the purse-lipped, athletic demeanor he’s brought to lots of action movies before, with generally satisfactory results. You might or might not find him credible as the ex-MP turned master investigator and vigilante who, in the present instance, metes out his own brand of justice to a sniper who’s gunned down five people—and to the sinister people behind his dastardly act. But in either case he’s stuck in a picture that’s very dumb and surprisingly lethargic.

It begins with that sniper attack—which, we see very clearly, was carried out by a steely-eyed Charlie (Jai Courtney). But the cops, led by Emerson (David Oyelowo), arrest ex-army shooter Barr (Joseph Sikora) for the crime, and DA Rodin (Richard Jenkins) accepts the overwhelming evidence of his guilt, despite the fact that his daughter Helen (Rosamund Pike) is the fellow’s defense counsel. Barr denies the charge, and can only ask for a guy named Jack Reacher before he’s put into a coma by fellow prisoners.

The mysterious Reacher shows up and is persuaded by Helen to investigate the case even though he despises Barr—a fellow whom he proved guilty of a massacre during his military days but who escaped punishment. But when pressure is put on him to leave town, he becomes convinced that Barr is being used as a patsy and plows through every obstacle to prove it and unmask the real culprits. In the process he will have to beat up a passel of bad guys, avoid the cops and even rescue Helen, who’s been taken prisoner by the conspirators.

Cruise does his job intensely enough, but he’s hobbled by the fact that the script fashioned by McQuarrie from Child’s book is simple-minded and silly. (Spoiler alert: you might not want to read beyond this point.) It’s predicated on one of the oldest dodges in the mystery writer’s handbook, covering up one murder by camouflaging it with others. In itself that’s not a terrible thing, but it becomes so when what the killing is concealing turns out to be one of the most absurd schemes you’re ever likely to encounter. (When Helen lays it out for her father, Pike and Jenkins look embarrassed to be playing the scene, especially since Jenkins is required—rightly—to pronounce it ridiculous.) And McQuarrie is so intent on strewing the ground with red herrings that eventually everyone becomes a suspect—though we’re shown early on that the ultimate villain is a disfigured guy who calls himself The Zek (Werner Herzog), whose motivation, when gradually revealed, turns out to be just amorphous malice.

It’s hard to understand why such a clumsy collection of genre cliches—which includes the ultimate idiocy, when the hero who’s cornered his enemy tosses away his weapon to take his foe on mano-a-mano) would have attracted McQuarrie’s interest (he is, after all, the fellow who penned “The Usual Suspects,” one of the cleverest scripts imaginable) or why the script piqued the interest of Cruise, who’s usually pretty astute in his choice of material. Perhaps it was the chance for a reunion with Robert Duvall, who—in his familiar smiling-crotchety style—plays the cranky gun-range owner who becomes Reacher’s ally in the uncomfortably jocular final confrontation.

In any event, whatever pleasure one might have in seeing Cruise and Duvall together again is diminished not merely by the inane plot but by McQuarrie’s solemn direction. The picture contains any number of martial-arts type fistfights, the requisite car chase, and a finale filled with gunfire and punches, but it’s mostly a strangely dull, plodding affair marked by entirely too many scenes filled with stilted dialogue played as though it was of Shakespearean import. The few genuinely amusing lines die in the company of the rest.

Under the circumstances the supporting cast looks understandably uncomfortable, with Pike and Oyelowo coming off only slightly better than Jenkins, who appears to want to crawl into a hole during every scene. Courtney makes a steely-eyed villain, but Herzog proves he should stay on the other side of the camera as the grotesque Zek. And Sikora has to play a dreadful final scene as the remorseful sniper. The picture is technically better than the script deserves, with veteran Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography especially effective (though Joe Kraemer’s music score is completely unmemorable).

Maybe Cruise and Paramount thought that “Jack Reacher” might be a franchise in the making, a replacement for the “Mission Impossible” series that’s getting tired. But the title of the book by Child that spawned the picture will doubtlessly prove prophetic. It’s “One Shot.”