By Michael Fox
Barbara Streisand has appeared in only two movies since 1996, in tiny parts in the dismal sequels to “Meet the Parents.” So her return to the screen in a leading role in “The Guilt Trip” is cause for a certain amount of anticipation.
The redoubtable comedienne doesn’t disappoint, exuding bottomless charm and energy as the 50-something New Jersey mother and unlikely cross-country travel partner of organic chemist Seth Rogen.
Babs works everything she’s got (except her singing voice), and it is wholly due to her efforts that “The Guilt Trip” provides whatever negligible entertainment value it does.
Ill-served by everyone except the cinematographer and makeup artist who make her look fabulous and the accountant who cut her substantial paycheck, Streisand doggedly spins her wheels in a road-trip movie that can’t get out of park for the first hour. By the time the movie finally generates a modicum of forward momentum, the end of the road is already in sight.
The set-up and plot of this flimsy vehicle can be summarized on the head of a pin: Andy Brewster (Rogen) has invented a non-toxic cleaner that he hopes to persuade a big-box chain to carry. He has scheduled interviews at corporate headquarters in various cities, and he begins his trip with a visit to his long-widowed mother.
Joyce smothers her son with low-grade nagging and embarrasses him with an unexpected revelation about a youthful romance before she married Andy’s father. Although the schlubby pitchman can’t wait to get on the road and away from Mom, Andy is touched by this secret and invites her to come along.
He has an ulterior motive, which involves one of the movie’s fleeting references to the road not taken. Scan the horizon for other themes, as well as other characters, in vain.
“The Guilt Trip” is so lazy—except for the attention paid to product placement—that it can’t be bothered to provide more than two remotely memorable incidents on the entire trip, and absolutely no amusing cameos. Giving credit to Dan Fogelman, who took money for this “screenplay,” is akin to abetting a felon. Nor should we underestimate the contributions of director Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal”), whose complete lack of talent and imagination redefines the word “hack.”
The laziness quotient is underscored by several improvised exchanges between Streisand and Rogen (generally in the car) that elicit tepid chuckles, at best. It’s a mystery at this late date why filmmakers still think Rogen, who is incapable of creating a character and invariably relies on a pallid variation of his sloppy, curse-laden shtick, has the chops and creativity to be funny on the fly.
The most perplexing aspect of “The Guilt Trip,” however, given the identities of its leads, is the utter absence of jokes about big-city Jews out of their element in Tennessee or Texas—or any Jewish humor, for that matter. A sociologist might interpret the movie as a post-assimilation view of America, but it seems more likely that the producers simply decided that the way to maximize the box office was to make the most generic, innocuous film possible.
“The Guilt Trip” is being pushed into theaters a few days before Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40” (Dec. 21) and the Christmas Day pairing of Billy Crystal and Bette Midler in “Parental Guidance.” The closing credits include a wink toward a possible sequel, presumably if the original proves to be a hit.
Even the appealing presence of Barbra Streisand, a true professional and a heckuva good sport, isn’t sufficient reason to reward the behind-the-scenes perpetrators of this sliver of sub-sitcom entertainment.