“You’re the love of my life, baby. It was only you.” This (paraphrased) sentiment expressed not between lovers, but rather by a mother to her son, reflects the strange feeling left by The Guilt Trip. Joyce Brewster’s (Barbra Streisand) cringe-worthy displays of overbearing motherly devotion to her son Andy (Seth Rogen) do make for a few laughs and, even amid the haze of outrageous hijinks, the mother-son relationship that lies at the core somehow feels familiar, lending this strangely endearing film the ability to resonate with viewers on a personal, visceral level. Despite an undeniable charm, a solid script and great chemistry between two very talented leads, however, The Guilt Trip is, on the whole, a rather dull ride.
Andy, a young organic chemist and entrepreneur, is setting out on a cross-country campaign in an attempt to market his revolutionary eco-friendly cleaning product. Joining him for the ride is Joyce, his vivacious, overfond, stereotypically (but not explicitly) Jewish mother from New Jersey. It’s a classic comedy trope: two people who get on each other’s nerves are thrust into an awkwardly intimate situation, hilarity ensues, but they grow closer in the process. The Guilt Trip follows this formula to a T, so much so that the specialness of the mother-son bond it strives to highlight is instead diluted it into a predictable and reductionist film.
Joyce, for example, embodies the over-attached, unoccupied empty nester stereotype. Her cheery but unrelenting disposition is an amalgam of all those annoyingly affectionate parental habits familiar to many adult children. For instance, Andy enjoys daily onslaughts of phone calls, gifts of unwanted undergarments, and overflowing plates of food. Having been the only man in his widowed mother’s life for many years, Andy is the sole object of her affections, but Joyce’s repeated vow that, out of all the little boys in the world, she would always pick him, has led Andy to feel guilty that he might not be worthy of that choice.
Curiously contrary to the implications of the film’s title, however, Joyce does nothing (at least consciously) to guilt her son into taking her along on his road trip. Having learned that he was named after a man whom Joyce had once hoped might fight for her hand in marriage, and who happens to live near the last destination on his itinerary, it is Andy himself who voluntarily extends the invitation out of a desire to reunite his mother with her long lost love. Hoping to repay her for her complete and lifelong devotion to him, Andy encourages his mother to pursue her own happiness and invest more energy into her personal life, thereby also happily taking some of the attention off of his.
While Andy may take center stage in Joyce’s life, she is unquestionably the focus of the film. Streisand is charming and lovable as the effervescent and doting mother and her commanding performance and big personality dominate The Guilt Trip both on camera and behind the scenes, as is evident in the DVD extras. The longest of the bonus featurettes, for example, is centered on the significance of Streisand’s presence in setting the tone, energy, and atmosphere on set.
A far more fascinating extra moves away from this collegial bloviating typical of DVD bonus features and instead provides a glimpse into the dynamic between the leading lady and her co-star, Seth Rogen. Although the 90 minute film is punctuated with awkwardness, the chemistry between Streisand and Rogen may be inconsistent but it is palpable, and it is what rescues The Guilt Trip from falling flat. In the intimate moments they share, the exaggerated situations and caricatures are at least briefly able to give way to emotional authenticity.
For any Streisand admirer, The Guilt Trip would likely be a delightful film, but for Rogen fans may be a bit of a disappointment. Standing in the shadow of the legendary Babs, Rogen is unfortunately forced to play second fiddle, with his more than respectable comedic talents and his maturing dramatic chops regrettably left untapped. Rogen’s uncharacteristically mild-mannered character is inevitably eclipsed by Streisand’s, which may be the primary culprit in the promising script’s failure to translate to film.
Rogen himself has admitted that the comedic potential of the film was somehow stymied, acknowledging that “the script was really great, but as we were making it, there was just a sense: this is not making us laugh really hard.” (“Seth Rogen: The slacker’s guide to getting ahead” by Tom Shone, The Guardian 21 June 13) As explained in the extras, the script was written as a loving homage to screenwriter Dan Fogelman’s own mother, but The Guilt Trip seems surprisingly short on charm to anyone unfamiliar with this source of inspiration. It would seem that the chemistry between Streisand and Rogen, although powerful enough to carry the film a respectable distance, isn’t quite enough fuel to reach the intended destination.