In The Guilt Trip, when Andy (Seth Rogen) asks his mother, Joyce (Barbra Streisand), if she wants to join him on a cross-country business trip, she responds, “You want to drive cross-country in a car with me?” A comparable skepticism could be fired at the movie itself, as spending 95 minutes in close filmic quarters with Rogen and Streisand hardly sounds like smooth sailing. The pair may pass for family sufficiently enough, but that offers minor relief from the dread of this union, which joins two comic personalities who are both hit or miss in the tolerability department. For her part, Streisand proves much more game than her co-star, who goes all out with Andy’s career blues to the point of idling through his performance.
Working with a script from Crazy, Stupid, Love. scribe Dan Fogelman, who based the story on a real-life road trip he took with his own mother, Streisand plays an outspoken and overbearing Jewish cliché, as eager to use hyperbole when gabbing to friends about Andy’s job as she is to fish for coupons at Budget Car Rental. It’s Streisand’s first leading role since The Mirror Has Two Faces, her only other subsequent work being supporting turns in the two Meet the Parents sequels. It’s still awfully strange that this famously persnickety diva selects such middling and daft comedies as comeback vehicles, yet she somehow succeeds at making the character quite endearing, immediately infectious in all her product-placement dialogue (“They know me at the Gap!”) and un-PC questions (“Whatever happened to that Oriental girl?”).
Produced by Streisand, Rogen, and Lorne Michaels, and directed by Anne Fletcher (The Proposal), The Guilt Trip often feels like its course was charted by blindly throwing darts at a map, its plot an odd succession of everything that stuck. The impetus of Andy and his mother’s trip, which stretches from Joyce’s home in New Jersey all the way to San Francisco, is a series of corporate pitch meetings for Andy, an inventor habitually failing to sell his organic, awkwardly named cleanser “Scie-O-Clean.” Then there’s the matter of Joyce’s long-lost love, a heartbreaker who preceded Andy’s late father, and who Andy tracks down as part of a secret detour plan. Also mixed in is a markedly strange array of anecdotes and pit stops, such as Joyce’s random revelation that she was once cross-eyed, a tale about how Andy’s penis “turned purple” when he was three, and a restaurant scene that sees Joyce seize the ultimate discount opportunity, rendering her dinner check nil by eating a 50-ounce steak and a mess of trimmings in under an hour. Such bizarre moments may well have been part of Fogelman’s own trek, but they don’t even play well on an idiosyncratic level on screen, their blunt inclusion and opaque subtext more distracting than anything else. Everything seems to run on its own track, including Andy’s search for open doors and Joyce’s need for closure, and despite the fleeting wisdom of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, which plays as a book on tape throughout and finally offers its closing line about “wondering what’s next,” it’s unclear how all of it fits together.
One thing The Guilt Trip seems keen to impart is that there comes a time when grown children should stop lying to their parents, however jeopardizing that may be to the kids’ protective intentions. Andy keeps Joyce in the dark about everything from his lack of success to the loss of his high school sweetheart, not giving his mother the credit of being able to handle the truth. There’s certainly some tenderness in the ups, downs, and disclosures, and Streisand is nothing if not convincing as a woman who, secrets and all, deeply loves her boy, but Rogen doesn’t have a bit of warm energy to reciprocate, stifling what little pathos the movie can muster. It’s a deficit that makes terribly glaring all the accompanying missteps, like an abandoned plot thread concerning Joyce’s handy purse hook (a product perhaps more appealing than Andy’s cleanser), and Andy’s sudden, fortuitous ability to at last land some buyers just in time for the third-act resolution. Mothers and sons deserve an amiable comedy they can share, but this one proves to be faulty long before the requisite freeway breakdown.