Billy and Bette

“Bring us your devices, and we will choose which ones we will take home with us.”

Director Andy Fickman greets us with this joke as some journalists in the room place their iPhones and digital recorders in front of him at the beginning of the roundtable interviews with the cast of Parental Guidance, the new comedy starring comic legends Billy Crystal and Bette Midler as grandparents Artie and Diane who discover that their child-rearing skills could use a little upgrade. But underneath it all, what’s really interesting about the family-friendly comedy is its portrait of America’s biggest generation, the Baby Boomers, adjusting to grandparenthood in the early 21st century, the era of the iPad, the non-stop schedule…and the gluten-free menu.

As for the child stars of the film (Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush, and Kyle Harrison Breitfkopf), they are of a generation that  isn’t familiar with a life before the Internet (for those of you over 30, feel free to moan and groan). And it certainly shows when I ask them about their favorite electronic toys. In the film, Artie and Diane have to babysit them for a week in a high-tech house equipped with state-of-the-art features that make the Jetsons’ home look like an outhouse. Needless to say, it doesn’t go over well with Grandma and Grandpa.

11-year-old Joshua Rush can’t stop gushing over his latest Apple gadget. “I love love love love love love love love love my iPad,” she says.

How many “love”s is that, just for the record?

“37,” he answers proudly. “I love my iPad. It is, like, I have no idea how I’m going to survive today. I didn’t bring my iPad. And I just upgraded to an iPad Mini today, and I’m going to stop talking because I could go on all day about my iPad.”

“It’s true,” says Bailee, who stars as eldest grandchild Harper. “We would, on his days off, be like, ‘What are you gonna do today Josh?’ And he’s all, ‘My dad’s gonna take to me to the Apple store.’”

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As for Crystal and Midler, it’s hard to believe that, despite their 30-year friendship, this is the first movie in which they’ve appeared together. Even Marisa Tomei, who plays their adult daughter, is surprised to see how long it has taken the stars to align.

“We all had a great time together,” Billy recalls. “The funny thing is, the three of us are all attached in an interesting way [whenever we would do something together]. And the fact that it happened this way is great.”

Billy always felt he had a certain connection to his costar. “When I did Soap, I wore a lot of the outfits that she [Bette] wore,” he jokes.

When director Andy Fickman and Billy, who acts as a producer here, sat down to discuss who would play Diane, they immediately thought of Bette. “So we called,” Billy remembers. “We had a dinner meeting the next night, and as soon as she sat down, we were married. She ate off my plate, she wouldn’t let me drive…so it felt great.”

Back in 1991, Marisa had auditioned to play Crystal’s wife in Mr. Saturday Night. “She was an amazing actress, but she was just too young at that point for that particular part opposite me. When we called her for this, the first thing she said was…”

“Now I’m too old,” Tomei pipes in. Everyone laughs.

The laughter is something that was constant on set. Midler credits Fickman, who is unlike most directors she’s had the privilege of working with: “Andy Fickman is a really cheerful soul. He has a very upbeat spirit. He’s known for keeping up and wrangling kids, making these movie with and for children, so we were really lucky to get him. He runs a really happy, upbeat set, which is so rare in this business.”

When I ask the two veteran stars if they’re as tech savvy as their on-screen grandkids, the question somewhat opens a can worms…

Bette: “It’s both the devil’s playground and it’s a dream and horror show too. I mean, you have to keep up, and there’s these apps every day, and it drives you nuts, but some of it is quite interesting. I’ve been doing it for a long time, but I don’t use everything that is available on the computer because I just get . And my husband, when he teaches me, he teaches me like this [ ], so I can’t even see what his hands are doing, and I say, ‘Move so I can see what you’re doing!’ There’s Command-T, Command-Q, Command-X…Plus, the passwords drive me nuts. But I got a [library] card, and I go all the time. I go three or four times a week, and I sit there with all the little old ladies, and I’m so shocked at everything you can do. I think it’s unbelievable. It’s the greatest thing ever created. I mean, I don’t know how it works. I don’t get it. But I think it’s unbelievable. I just can’t get over it! It’s as if we were there when the car was built!” (FYI, you can follow Bette on Twitter at @BetteMidler).

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In the opening scene of Parental Guidance, Billy’s character, Artie, gets laid off for basically being a 20th century relic trying to get by in the 21st. Most of the dialogue between him and his young superior was improvised. “The young actor I played against, I couldn’t keep a straight face. He was so funny to me…and he just kept asking me [stuff about social media]. I said ‘Kill me about Facebook, kill me about Twitter, kill me about hashtags, kill me about everything,’ and it turned out to be really funny.”

And now that he recently got his first smartphone, maybe Crystal can acquaint himself with all of those apps?

“The thing about these things…[holds it up] I just got one. And it’s great because, as a parent and a grandparent, you gotta be called, so it’s a great thing to have. But I hate seeing families in restaurants when no one is talking, and the little kids are like this [hunched over the small screen], they text the waiter what they want. Nobody talks, and they look so sad. The art of conversation is gone.”

Bette nods in agreement: “It’s true.”

Billy looks at her. “The art of penmanship is gone.”

Bette: “Oh my God, they stopped teaching cursive! I almost died when I read that. I said, ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ Truly, I think it’s a tool like any other great tool, but it cannot take over your life. And I think a lot of people, they sit there, a lot of them with jobs where they have to sit there eight hours a day. Why do they want to go home and sit there another five hours. It’s nutty.”

Billy: “And it’s not good for your eyes, and so on. The straining and everything. What kills me also, besides the lack of family interaction, is people walking around town looking down and assuming you’re going to stop your car or avoid them. We’re a world looking down, and I think it’s really dangerous.”

Bette: “There’s no point. If you’re in the middle of a beautiful day, which is rarer and rarer, why not look up and see the day? It’s distressing. I feel it is a tool, and I think it has changed the world, but I think it’s a tool that you have to control. You can’t have it control you. Because it will…it’s like another job.”

Another thing he hates: cell phones in theaters. “They’re in people’s blouse or shirt, and it looks like ET’s heart lighting up.” When he was on Broadway, he once stared down a woman who picked up a phone call in the middle of his act. And he played the scene directly to her. “And she actually said, ‘I have to go. He’s looking at me.’”

After watching Crystal and Midler on screen and off, there’s hope that they’ll work together in the near future. After all, both having had successful careers, now spanning several decades, it would make sense to see these two become a new big-screen comedy duo, a voice for all Boomers out there who feel like there’s hardly any entertainment tailored for them.

Crystal is grateful for having had a long career. Having been married to his wife for 42 years, he prides himself on never taking anything for granted. Maybe teaming up with Bette again could be a good thing…

“At the age of 64, I love to still have dreams.”

Hiko Mitsuzuka (@TheFirstEcho)