Silver Screen: The Guilt Trip ***
It’s hard to imagine anyone’s surprise that the road-trip comedy The Guilt Trip failed to catch on. Well, maybe Karl Rove thought it was going to do better in Florida and Ohio, but anybody with good sense could see the problem.
The Guilt Trip’s premise is that going on a cross-country car ride with your mother would be really annoying, and to prove this the movie will simulate the experience with Barbara Streisand pinch-hitting for your own personal mom. Yes, that does indeed sound annoying-- so why are we going to this? Is it like a date movie for people who’ve never moved out of the house.
Despite never marking a particularly good case for its own existence, however, The Guilt Trip is actually pretty pleasant, if benignly so. The conflicts are kept small and relatable and the roadtrip hijinks are mildly zany rather than grandiose and absurd.
Both stars essentially play mild, familiar versions of the characters they’ve made famous, Rogen as the scruffy smartmouth and Streisand as the fussy lady with the big personality. She’s a bit more understated here than you might think as Joyce, a widower who heaps suffocating amounts of affection and concern on her only child. Rogen’s Andrew is a more uptight and motivated version of his comic character. No slacker stoner, Andrew is a chemist who has invented a new cleaning product that he lacks the social skills to promote and sell. He’s home visiting his mother before embarking on a long cross-country business trip, visibly flustered as he indulges her eccentricities, when she drops some big news on him: Before she met his father she was in love with another man who couldn’t commit, and she’s always carried a torch for him, so much so that she named her only son after him.
Andrew, feeling guilty that her pregnancy was part of what forced her to settle for his father and a less-exciting life than she dreamed of, tracks his namesake down to an office in California. He proposes that his mother come along on his business trip, which he plans to end with an unscheduled stop at the California office so his mother can be reunited with her former flame.
It’s a sweet premise that doesn’t make a ton of sense, but leads to a lot of awkward mother-son bonding time. Their moderately madcap adventures include an eating contest, car troubles, and run-ins with brawling barflies and benevolent strippers. It’s cute, to damn it with faint praise, but Rogen and Streisand have a strong enough rapport to find a few jokes here and there that really hit. Some of The Guilt Trip’s strongest material is probably too subtle, like the great but fairly obscure running gag about her insistence on listening to the unabridged audiobook of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex.
The Guilt Trip is almost better for what it doesn’t do: no overblown confrontations, no broad cultural stereotypes, no awkward cross-generational sex humor or ill-advised grossout gags. It’s polite but not condescending. But it also fails to get to the heart of the mother-son conflict-- or to capture the bizarre specificities-- as well as the similarly themed Albert Brooks comedy Mother. There’s no moment quite as funny or true as Debbie Reynolds, playing Brooks’s and everyone else’s mother, scraping “the protective ice” off the top of a carton of freezerburned ice cream.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.