With Barbra Streisand, Seth Rogen, Kathy Najimy, Colin Hanks, Nora Dunn. Written by Dan Fogelman. Directed by Anne Fletcher. Rated PG-13 for language and some risqué material. 95 minutes.
THE GUILT TRIP isn’t so much a bad movie as an entirely predictable one. Andrew Brewster (Seth Rogen) is an organic chemist who has come up with a wonderful new cleanser that he is trying to market. The only problem is that he is an organic chemist and can’t figure out how to make his breakthrough interesting to laypeople.
His mother Joyce (Barbra Streisand) decides it would be fun to join him on his road trip to various cities trying to interest someone into acquiring his product. So there you have the premise: this is a buddy road movie in which the buddies are a mother and her adult son. You can probably write the jokes yourself. She’ll embarrass him. He’ll make wry comments that will fly over her head. They will end up bonding as they realize just how much they love each other, even if they don’t fully understand each other.
The problem isn’t so much the concept as the execution. If this movie was to pop up on, say, Lifetime, you’d be sitting there going, “How’d they get Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen to do a made-for-cable movie?” You may find yourself asking the same question about the film in the theater, but because our expectations are higher for theatrical films you might find yourself asking why they’re wasting their talent on this piece of fluff.
In one scene they stop at a Texas steakhouse and Joyce notices a special on the menu. It consists of a dinner roll, salad, shrimp cocktail, and more than four pounds of steak. The deal is that if you finish the entire meal in 60 minutes, it’s free. If not, it’s a $100. It’s a lame joke, and it doesn’t get any better as we watch Streisand attempt to polish off the meal. The fact that if she succeeds she also gets a t-shirt doesn’t make it any funnier (and it wasn’t that funny, either, when John Candy did it in “The Great Outdoors” in 1988).
If the film works at all it is because of the wholly unexpected chemistry between Streisand and Rogen. You may not buy them as mother and son, but as two people in a road trip movie, they clearly are enjoying playing off of each other. After many years of having a reputation – fair or not – for being “difficult,” it’s clear that Streisand is comfortable in her own skin. Whatever accommodations the production had to make to get her in the film, on screen she’s relaxed and having fun. Rogen may be her most unlikely leading man since she appeared opposite Walter Matthau in “Hello, Dolly!” and afterwards Matthau found the experience so unpleasant he said he’d never work with her again (Matthau is quoted as having said, “I have more talent in my smallest fart than she does in her entire body,” and Streisand reportedly presented him with a bar of soap for his “sewer-mouth”). One gets the sense that like Joyce and Andrew, Streisand and Rogen may not have fully understood each other but they were able to play together nicely.
This will undoubtedly look better on the small screen, whether on cable or DVD, but for those not up for Oscar-contending epics – historical, fantastic or bloody – “The Guilt Trip” is a mildly pleasant alternative.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.