Film Review: The Guilt Trip

La Streisand is better than she's been in a while, but that's not enough to recommend this too thinly scripted, facilely titled would-be audience pleaser.

In what must be deemed as one of the most courageously optimistic decisions ever, hapless scientific inventor Andy Brewster (Seth Rogen) plans a week-long road trip with his controlling, ever-interfering mother, Joyce (Barbra Streisand), from New York to San Francisco. Ostensibly a business errand, with Andy hawking his invention, an eco-friendly cleaning product called Scioclean, to various big store chains, it is actually a secret mission. Joyce, a widow, had a pre-marriage love affair with a man Andy discovers is living in San Francisco, unmarried. Wanting his widowed mom to finally get a man in her life, as well as a life of her own, apart from calling him 20 times a day, Andy seeks to reunite them.

The reason for any real interest in The Guilt Trip is, of course, Streisand, and it’s nice to report that she looks miraculously un-aged and gives the best, most relaxed performance she has in years. Her Joyce could almost be a slightly mellowed middle-aged version of the screwballs she played in What’s Up, Doc? and The Owl and the Pussycat, with her amusing obsessions over food, bargains, sanitary conditions (using a “purse hook” to keep her bag from touching the floor in public places) and the eternally single state of her beloved, skittish son. It’s a tribute to Streisand that, even after an almost complete lifetime living in the lap of superstar luxury, she manages to be convincing as a suburban biddy who pulls out a coupon at a car rental. Although one can still bemoan the trajectory of a once dazzling, multi-talented career now relegated to clichéd castrating mother roles and woozily self-satisfied recordings of standards, her gentle eccentricities provide many a chuckle initially and put you in a frame of mind to enjoy the film.

The problem is there’s just not enough film to enjoy. Dan Fogelman’s too-predictably winsome script is thin to the point of malnutrition and could have maybe gone through some rewrites to add some interesting layers. Albert Brooks’ Mother was also very lightweight stuff, but almost seems a model of insightful depth by comparison. Anne Fletcher’s direction is pure uninspired adequacy.

Rogen has very little to play except exasperation with Mama and flop-sweat desperation when cluelessly pitching his wares in boardroom scenes which become very repetitive. You’d definitely like to see more of what makes him tick, and although Rogen, perhaps in deference to his fabled co-star, gives an appealingly self-effacing performance, sparked with his trademark expert waffling-reaction ad-libs, more of the sneaky-nasty humor he’s capable of would have been welcome here. Funny performers like Nora Dunn, Kathy Najimy, Miriam Margolyes, Ari Graynor and Adam Scott seemingly have mere seconds to make any kind of minor comic impact.

The Brewsters have a plethora of wacky encounters with a hobo hitchhiker, a stripper who’s a wiz at car repair, a drunken bar brawler and a gallant possible swain for Joyce who meets her at a—rather forced—restaurant eating challenge in Texas, but they mostly feel like slapped-on divertissements to the central woman-and-son conflict and not organically humorous. In a particularly contrived moment, the two seek refuge in a snowstorm at the home of Andy’s erstwhile girlfriend, where certain deep truths are revealed.

There’s an end-credit sequence which ironically contains perhaps more funny moments than there are in the entire rest of the film, consisting of not so much outtakes as edited footage of many of these encounters. You wonder why more of them weren’t included in the film’s official duration, as they definitely would have helped conceal the sentimental sketchiness of the whole thing.