'The Guilt Trip': An amiable journey with Babs and Seth
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Like the song says, things are different today. It doesn't seem that long ago, at least to me, that Barbra Streisand being in a movie was a really big deal. But her 2006 return to multiplex screens after a 10-year hiatus was as part of a kind of novelty old-school ensemble in "Meet the Fockers," as in, whoa, Ben Stiller's Focker parents are Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand? How's THAT for not quite subtext? Having brought down her cinematic stock thusly, she phoned in (almost literally) a cameo for that film's follow-up, "Little Fockers." Now she comes back in a modestly scaled holiday picture that turns out to be a pretty apt vehicle for her in this day and age, in her day and age.
This is to say that she convinces as a nearly elderly New Jersey widow and mega-Jewish mother in "The Guilt Trip," in which she undertakes the title journey with an emotionally distant son played by Seth Rogen. Streisand's cinematic heyday saw her not just as a musical diva, but as a comic actress of exemplary vitality and variety, and this movie lets her work those chops again in an apt context. The movie is written by Dan Fogelman, a vet of many Pixar productions, which bodes well, and is directed by Anne Fletcher, who called the shots on the likes of "27 Dresses" and "The Proposal," which bodes badly. As it turns out, the movie is not as sparkling as Fogelman's participation might make you hope, and it's not dreadful as ... well, you get the idea.
The premises that set the story line in motion are pretty weak. Rogen's Andy is an inventor taking to the road to pitch an eco-friendly home cleaning product he's invented. He's starting out from his mom's Jersey house, and after one late-night confession from mom that freaks him out, he decides to make his trek a multipurpose one, and surprises his mom, Joyce, with an offer to take her on the road with him. He's not entirely prepared for her coddling and meddling and TMI. But not entirely unpredictably, she also has some wisdom to impart, for instance that he should be pitching his invention in layman's terms rather than in Poindexterish science talk. Much of the movie is just Rogen and Streisand in a car riffing: She embarrasses him with oversharing or inquiries about old girlfriends, and he responds with mortification and sarcasm.
This is pretty engaging as it goes. Streisand and Rogen have expert instincts, and their interplay is a pleasure to watch. And the movie is surprisingly gentle in its application of conventional movie wisdom and avoidance of easy gross-out humor. It's too bad that the material isn't a little bit funnier than it is, because while "The Guilt Trip" goes by pleasantly enough, it doesn't offer much in the way of really rollicking comic stuff. It might not really be aiming for that; there are moments of emotional struggle between these two lonesome characters that suggests something along the lines of a poignant European meditation on family ties. But the movie doesn't hang together so coherently as to make this idea of the film come across in an entirely satisfying way either. "The Guilt Trip" winds up being neither fish nor flesh nor, for that matter, good red herring. But it's a nice try, and a good holiday present for die-hard Barbra fans.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.