THE family-friendliest comedy this holiday-movie season is also the sappiest and schmaltziest.

And thanks to Billy Crystal, the shtickiest.

"Parental Guidance" is a mild-mannered riff on parenting, then and now. It contrasts the top-down/career-first mentality of one generation with the coddled "nurturing" of today, but never takes a stand on which is better.

Basically, it's a vehicle for Billy Crystal, and to a lesser degree Bette Midler, to riff on the spoiled, overindulged and sometimes-uptight kids their kid is raising.

Artie (Crystal) is a minor-league baseball announcer who never got to his dream job, covering San Francisco Giants games. He's content to make homespun wisecracks in front of the mike for the Fresno Grizzlies. Until they lay him off for being un-hip.

His retired "weather girl" wife Diane interrupts her pole-dance aerobics class to comfort him and listen to his lies about how young he "feels."

Daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) is a Web designer living in Atlanta with husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) in the totally computerized house Phil designed.

Their kids - 12, 8 and 5 - have play dates, ball games and rehearsals. Violinist daughter Harper (Bailee Madison) would discover boys, if she wasn't stressing over a big audition that sets up her Berlin Philharmonic life plan. Turner (Joshua Rush) is a bullied stammerer whose little league doesn't keep score, denying him the chance to excel at anything. And Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf) is a terror with an imaginary friend.

In dealing with these brats, Crystal delivers tepidly caustic rants, Midler invokes the occasional inappropriate life lesson to Harper, and Tomei struggles to find anything fun about playing a smothering mother. The laughs are, to use the old-fashioned term, telegraphed, with director Andy Fickman ("The Game Plan") clearing the decks to make every laugh line a stale showcase moment for his stars. A Billy and Bette duet of "Who Wrote the Book of Love" is cute, but the setup is sluggish. A quicker and more cluttered movie would have been funnier.

There are sparks between generations, but with the exception of Madison, the child actors are in over their heads and the adults seem as if they've just met.

At least the sentimental stuff works. And the toilet jokes.