Oh mama! Barbara Streisand plays mother to son Seth Rogen in the comedic road movie The Guilt Trip. Sadly, that title's the wittiest part of the proceedings.
By sticking Streisand's smothering muddah Joyce Brewster in a compact car with Rogen's Andrew for a cross-country drive, The Guilt Trip positions itself roughly halfway between son's worst nightmare and mother-and-child's wish fulfillment of flash-fire bonding. The results are silly and nice, basically unfunny but basically innocuous—so as satisfying as your average leftovers. That fits one of the picture's sage pronouncements: "Food is love."
Given that Rogen's character is an organic chemist, it should come as no surprise that The Guilt Trip is pure formula. Andrew Brewster has invented one heckuva cleaning product, but he doesn't know the first thing about selling it. Okay, he knows the first thing: lining up meetings with potential buyers. But every time he steps up to the second thing, hooking a vendor, he chokes. And his performance anxiety reaches a new level of tension with mom in tow.
Naturally, Joyce has an idea or two about what Andrew's doing wrong, and naturally, he doesn't want to hear it. Of course, mother knows best, even if she goes about sharing it in an overbearing way. As Andrew gripes his way to a final destination where he can finally listen to his mother rather than just hear her, screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love) ticks off destinations between New Jersey and San Francisco. Andrew means that final stop to fulfill a secret plan to reunite his mother with an old flame, and we all know that secret plans are always a good idea when it comes to making people happy.
As Joyce puts it, "I've been to the dance, and now I am tired," but Streisand gives no such sign this time around. The headline news here is that Babs gets a role that won't have her fans looking away in embarrassment (this means you, Roz Focker). Joyce may not be a very challenging role—surname aside, she's a walking Jewish-mother stereotype—but a game Streisand gets to mix it up with Rogen in some ad-libbed bits, which gives the picture occasional juice. (Rogen's turn surprises more in a credibly dramatic angry blowout rather than anything like comic fireworks).
Still, the fact that The Guilt Trip isn't an embarrassment doesn't nearly close the gap between a real comedy like What's Up, Doc? and this pablum passing for one. By my count, The Guilt Trip has two funny jokes (one involving Joyce's choice of book-on-tape), so proceed at your own risk, but of course, your mileage may vary.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]