‘The Guilt Trip’: A long ride

December 18, 2012

An icon of the baby-boom generation, Barbra Streisand teams up with the free-spirited shlub-star of the Millenials, Seth Rogen, in “The Guilt Trip,” a movie whose wit is never as sharp as its heart is warm.

For a comedy with heart, this film by Anne Fletcher is unfortunately short on laughs. That’s not as painful as it might seem; thankfully, writer Dan Fogelman isn’t offering lame setup-punchline material. Instead, this is meant to be character comedy with feeling. The feeling is there; the laughs, however, are on the skimpy side.

Rogen plays Andrew, an organic chemist who lives in L.A. after receiving his doctorate from UCLA. But he’s headed home to suburban New Jersey to see his widowed (and overbearing) mother Joyce (that would be Streisand), who seems to leave him several voice messages an hour in anticipation of his arrival. He’s coming to town for a brief visit, before he hits the road by car to make a cross-country driving trip, where he’ll pitch a new cleaning product he’s invented, at the headquarters of Costco, Kmart and the like. (Yes, I know – already a far-fetched premise.)

Mom is a hoverer and a worrier, someone whose child has been her whole life since the death of her husband before the boy reached adolescence. She’s not overbearing, just relentless; he deflects her questions and advice with sarcastic remarks, waving them off as though each little verbal exchange with her is a gnat buzzing around his head, something to be brushed away.

But when she tells him a story about the man who got away – the guy she wanted to marry who wouldn’t marry her (and for whom she named Andrew) – it gives him a different appreciation for her and the disappointments in her life. On a guilt-driven whim, he asks if she would like to make the cross-country drive with him.

So it turns into a road movie, and a formulaic one at that. The one constant is his inability to overcome his own horrible sales pitch to potential corporate customers, who he’s trying to interest in launching his product. He always puts a smiley face on the results – “I think it went well,” he tells her after each meeting – to keep her from worrying, but he’s going nowhere fast, sort of like this movie.

Do they get on each other’s nerves? Well, gee, you might as well ask if Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong were juicing.

But that material is never as funny as you’d wish. Their adventures, meanwhile, are mostly piffle, like Joyce deciding to enter a Texas steakhouse’s challenge to eat a five-pound steak in an hour to get it for free. Or their trip to Las Vegas, where not much really happens.

Given the pedigree of the filmmakers, this hardly comes as a surprise. Fletcher is a choreographer whose resume as a filmmaker includes the barely tolerable “The Proposal” and the barely watchable “27 Dresses.” As a writer, Fogelman can be funny (“Tangled,” “Bolt”) or awful (both “Cars” movies, “Fred Claus”).

Mostly, this is meant to be about a son seeing his mother as a person with needs and disappointments for the first time – and a mother recognizing her son as a fully formed adult at long last. They get that part right, including the tiny climax in which Andrew tries to reunite his mother with the man who got away.

Rogen’s deadpan delivery seems to bounce off the impervious Streisand, while Streisand’s clueless mother chatters nonstop, barely pausing to listen to what anyone else has to say. As Joyce prattles on, you begin to wonder: Does she talk this much when there’s no one around?

“The Guilt Trip” is a road movie that barely reaches the speed limit. The ending gets it right, bringing a lump to the throat. Which, it would seem, is the least it could do, given its otherwise laugh-deficient script.

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