Directed by Anne Fletcher
Written by Dan Fogelman
At the holidays, family members are bound to reunite, catching up and swapping presents after a year away from each other. And you’re likely to wind up at the movies, too. Though you’ll have your pick of many genres at the multiplex, sometimes the safe route is best to avoid an unnecessary family squabble. Often, family comedies are grindingly unfunny, or condescending and infantile. So it may be heartening to learn that The Guilt Trip, a movie whose concept is so high it’s stratospheric, is a pleasant, amiable experience at the movies, thanks to low-key performances from Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen.
Rogen plays Andy Brewster, an organic chemist struggling to convince various big-name companies to invest in his invention, a completely non-toxic and non-poisonous cleaning product he’s dubbed Scieoclean. (Say it like “Science” first.) Before he embarks on a weeklong cross-country road trip from New Jersey to Las Vegas, Andy spends a few days with his nagging mother Joyce (Streisand), who reveals a past love she felt so strongly about that she named Andy after him. Inspired after a cursory web search, Andy convinces Joyce to join him on the trip, ostensibly for some mother-son bonding, but really so he can reunite these long-lost lovers. Along the way, Andy and Joyce do get closer to each other, both breaking out of their comfort zones.
The Guilt Trip, as conceived by other writers, might have taken the easiest possible way out with lots of intentionally “shocking” gags, dirty jokes, and other lewd behavior of a pop-culture icon acting as badly as possible. Screenwriter Dan Fogelman, however, inspired by a road trip he took with his own mother, treats Andy and Joyce with respect. The conflicts they have—Andy has a great product but no clue how to sell it, Joyce is unable and unwilling to find companionship with anyone who isn’t her son—could easily be redone in a shticky, obnoxious light. Thankfully, The Guilt Trip avoids these pitfalls frequently. If there’s any flaw, it’s that by treating these characters honestly at all, the movie isn’t so much laugh-out-loud funny (except one unexpected moment at Andy’s final pitch with the Home Shopping Network), just consistently likable.
Neither actor digs deep here, while not playing the same characters we’ve seen over the years. Rogen gets to work more as a cynical straight man, as Andy is constantly thrown for a loop by Joyce’s incessantly overbearing nature. Streisand, as Joyce, may play into some of the Jewish-mom stereotypes held in modern culture; still, she’s never grating or annoying as Joyce, even though we can see exactly how she pushes Andy’s buttons. A number of comic actors, from Adam Scott to Casey Wilson to Colin Hanks, make what amount to cameo appearances in The Guilt Trip, but the bulk of the film is dedicated to the prickly and changing relationship between mother and son. Rogen and Streisand spend a lot of time inside a car, though they venture to a strip club (a scene that could’ve been crass, but isn’t), a steakhouse, and a flashy casino.
Much may be made of Streisand’s return to being a leading lady—she’s had supporting roles in the Meet the Parents franchise, certainly, but is a co-lead if not the main character—and while she’s quite good as Joyce, Rogen doesn’t wilt under pressure or let her dominate the film. Andy’s frustration, not just with his mother but with the way his life has turned out, is palpable and relatable, and never off-putting. Even in the inevitable blow-out the two have in a dingy motel room, you can sympathize with both of them, seeing their separate arguments without feeling like one is automatically in the right or wrong.
Perhaps the greatest complaint with The Guilt Trip is that it’s not that funny. Some moments inspire actual laughter, for sure. But this is a movie you’ll smile at before you explode into even giggles. The Guilt Trip isn’t terribly ambitious, just a low-key, simple comedy. Outside of a few moments, director Anne Fletcher leaves well enough alone and points the camera in the direction of her two leads. (Some early sight gags would be better served by a wider, single take, as opposed to the cross-cutting she employs.) Charming if slight, The Guilt Trip is a nice, respectable film, one you wouldn’t be embarrassed taking your mom to.
— Josh Spiegel