The closing credits of “The Guilt Trip” tell you why the film isn’t as wince inducing as its concept suggests.
Screenwriter Dan Fogelman named star Barbra Streisand’s character after his own mother, Joyce. It’s that connection, that sense of affection, which pushes “The Guilt Trip” beyond formula pablum. Not by much, at times, but just enough to recommend it if there’s an overbearing mother figure in your life.
Streisand, grabbing her first major screen role since 1996’s “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” plays a widowed woman looking forward to spending some time with her son.
Thirty-something Andrew (Seth Rogen) is coming home to the East Coast to spend some time with his mother, but he has bigger worries on his mind than her incessant smothering. He’s trying to pitch a new, organic cleaning product to a major retailer but is having no luck.
When Andrew learns his mother’s old flame is alive and living in San Francisco, he decides to invite Joyce on his planned cross-country trip to hawk his product. She’ll love spending time with him, and he’ll spring her old flame on her at trip’s end and crush her self-imposed dating sabbatical.
Simple, right? Not in your average road trip comedy.
The pair wind up stuffed into a compact car, Andrew’s sales pitch needs serious tinkering, and all that motherly love can get on a fella’s nerves. What might have been insufferable in other hands comes to fitful life in “Trip.” Credit the fine comic chemistry between Streisand and Rogen, who could easily pass for mother and son off screen, and their ability to tweak the other’s buttons for 90-odd minutes without making us feel cheated.
The film’s most outrageous comic set piece, which asks Joyce to wolf down a massive steak in one of those all you can eat type joints, actually happened. Other complications, like Joyce nagging her son about his love life, aren’t allowed to crystalize to their comic potential.
Other scenes drift in and out of the story without impact, like Andrew briefly reuniting with an old flame. Does Andy really have a problem with woman? “The Guilt Trip” doesn’t care enough to examine the matter further.
Streisand gives Joyce more complexities than the stereotypical Jewish mother role appearing in the film’s trailer. She’s always cutting corners to save cash, not in an offensive way but in the manner the previous generation did to make ends meet. She calls an Asian person an “oriental,” an age gap that adds color without evoking anything close to hate speech. She even hands Andrew a book at one point in case he has to “make” on the toilet.
It’s a throwaway line, but it tells you Fogelman understands the curious inflections of older people and their habits.
Joyce is a character, no doubt, and Streisand reminds us why she’s so good on screen. Another actress would make Joyce’s heavy-handed love intolerable, but with a crinkle in her eye and a quickly moistening glance she’s worth all of our patience.
Fogelman wraps “The Guilt Trip” on an emotionally tart note, gently manipulating our affections for mother and son. Streisand still deserves a better big screen vehicle after all this time, but “Trip” reminds us she can transcend standard-issue fare.