A film review by Craig J. Koban December 31, 2012

THE GUILT TRIP jjj
 

2012, PG-13, 93 mins.

Joyce: Barbra Streisand / Andrew: Seth Rogen / Ben: Brett Cullen / Rob: Colin Hanks / Amy: Nora Dunn / Gayle: Kathy Najimy

Directed by Anne Fletcher / Written by Dan Fogelman

THE GUILT TRIP is one of those comedies that has a premise as old as the genre itself – the mismatched buddy road picture.  When the formula doesn’t work (see DUE DATE), the film becomes exasperatingly awful.  But, when the formula clicks with characters and performers we like, then the film overcomes its otherwise stale and perfunctory conventions.  THE GUILT TRIP falls into that category.  Not only are the leads appealing here, but the film earns its laughs and – at times – attains moments of genuine heart-rending sentiment as well. 

Alas, the strength of the mismatch buddy comedy lies solely on the shoulders of its two leads, and I could not think of any two actors more diametrically different to play off of one another than – wait for it – Seth Rogen and…Barbara Streisand, the latter who has not really been given top billing in a major film since 1996 (let’s forget LITTLE FOCKERS, ummkay).  Rogen certainly doesn’t have to prove his skills as an on-screen funny man, but the notion of pairing him with the likes of Streisand may seem completely out of left field.  Yet, Rogen plays so wonderfully against the type of his f-bomb-lashing/man-child schlub personas and Streisand – who looks pretty good for a woman of 70 – is so relaxed and at ease here that you quickly forget the odd pairing and just go with it.  As unexpected and miraculous as it sounds, Rogen and Streisand prove to be the comedic dynamic duo of the holiday movie season. 

Aside from the affable leads, THE ROAD TRIP is still a road comedy, and this film's travels takes us cross-country from New Jersey to California.  Andy (Rogen) is a brilliant chemist that has come up with a cleaning product so bloody clean, non-toxic, and Earth friendly that you can actually drink it (okay, it tastes horrendous, but it won’t kill you as gulping down on Windex would).  He has put most of his life savings into the venture, but his real problem is that he is wretched when it comes to the art of the sale.  His pitches come in the form of scientific-term-heavy mumbo-jumbo that loses his audience within seconds.  This guy couldn’t sell water to a desert Bedouin.  You know you’re in trouble when your target audience is so bored with you that they begin checking their Blackberries. 

 

 

Joyce (Streisand) is his overly protective, highly loving, and very Jewish mother that gives him moral support until it literally hurts.  She’s the kind of mother that calls her son 10-15 times a day and when she does not hear back from him in the same said day then she would most likely call the cops out of fidgety worry.  Andy loves his mother, but days go by where he just can’t stand her bossy intrusiveness in his life.  Andy is planning his last ditch cross-country sales trek when he hears some shocking news: his mother once loved a man before she met his father and still seems to be in love with the guy…and he apparently lives in San Francisco as a well off businessman.  After much procrastination, Andy decides to invite his mother on his trip, secretly hoping to reunite her with the man that got away…that is if he can stomach being in a car with her for more that five-minutes. 

A lot of what transpires in THE GUILT TRIP is pure narrative contrivance through and through, which involves its rather prolonged and mechanically introduced set-up and premise and then hits every obligatory beat in the mismatched buddy road comedy playbook.   Many genre pictures like this strain to come up with reasons why its mismatched buddies would bother traveling together – or be able to stomach each other for as long as they do – but at least THE GUILT TRIP gives Andy palpable rationales.  Plus…gee whiz…his mismatched buddy is his mommy.  Yet, the film does cater up many predictable moments: mother will annoy son within the first minute of entering the car; mother will try to figure in to his pressure-laden sales meetings; mother will unavoidably learn the real reason for Andy allowing her to tag along; mother and son will have a large falling out along the way, only to rekindle their love and support for one another…blah, blah, blah. 

Yes, THE GUILT TRIP is mostly silly and obvious, but it succeeds because of how good Rogen and Streisand create an authentic mother/son tandem and for just how effortlessly good they are on screen together.  Rogen in particular should be giving props for not camera mugging and dominating every scene he’s in; instead, he selflessly plays things a bit more dialed down and low key, which allows Streisand to become the comedic focal point.  The temptation with the Joyce character would have been to play her up to every domineering and annoying Jewish mom stereotype in the book (which, to be fair, this film’s mother adheres to at times).  Yet, Streisand brings such a warmth, humbleness, and lived-in charm to her character that you’re almost willing to forgive her more annoying social transgressions that embarrass her son.  Of course, Joyce can be like fingernails on chalkboard at times, but what mother hasn’t been to their respective sons? 

There’s two sequences that I loved.  One involves a truly frazzled Andy – at his wit’s end – that loses his cool, verbally berates his poor ol’ mamma, and tells her repeatedly to shut up.  Streisand plays her response not with over-the-top, tear-induced hysterics, but with a strong-willed and forceful tone that rightfully and firmly establishes who she is to Andy (“You don’t have to like me, but you will respect me” she chastises her son, in a moment that will literally have every mother in the theatre that has an inconsiderate and lippy child cheering).  The other scene – much, much lighter – involves the penny-pinching, sweatpants-wearing Joyce trying to eat a 50-ounce steak in one hour at a roadside restaurant pit stop to get the $100 meal for free.  Sure, the same thing was done in THE GREAT OUTDOORS, but it’s kind of a riot to see Babs gorge on bloody red meat like there’s no tomorrow. 

I fear for the type of film that THE GUILT TRIP could have been (just imagine another Adam Sandler cross dressing fiasco where he played both Andy and the mother…oy vey!).  Yet, Rogen and Streisand don’t play it up for lame and ham-infested farce, but rather are pretty straight-laced and sincere in their performances, which helps milk the laughs and - in moments like the conclusion, as Joyce will hopefully and finally meet her lost love - create instances of poignancy.  Yeah, some of the gags feel forced (as is the case with a recurring one that involves Joyce demanding that the disturbed Andy play an audio book of “Middlesex” - which is about the life of a hermaphrodite - while on the road), but a majority of them hit their intended marks.  THE GUILT TRIP is disposable, but sweet tempered, thanklessly acted, and moving in parts.   It made me want to rush home and call my own mother afterwards, seeing as I have not returned her calls in…like…a day.  Awwwww….

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