• Bette Midler, playing audience surrogate during one of the bathroom gags

As I wrote earlier this year in a post about Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, I can never bring myself to hate inane family comedies like Parental Guidance because I’ve witnessed firsthand how happy they make people with developmental disabilities. Movies like these operate on the simplest level in terms of visual content, regularly depicting characters performing familiar actions (making toast, starting a car, watching a baseball game, etc) with little to no conflicting detail in the frame. The close-ups are comparably bare and, heightened by the broad acting style, have the effect of spelling out a scene’s emotional content in all capital letters. The stories tend to be simple too. Characters state outright how they’re feeling or what lessons they’ve learned (and, by implication, would like us to learn); the villains tend to be the characters who say mean things.

These movies are like the first books small children are given to read on their own. To call them patronizing would be missing the point. When I worked as a direct-service provider for severely and profoundly retarded adults (who ranged in intellectual capacity from about a seven-year-old level to about a six-month-old level), I found that innocuous junk like Beethoven and How to Eat Fried Worms were the movies they felt most confident talking about. They could identify most of the onscreen action, and a few could even attempt a plot summary—which they couldn’t do for Mary Poppins or Norbit, as much as they enjoyed watching both.