“My little Donald Trump!” Even as Joyce (Barbra Streisand) means to compliment her son, Andy (Seth Rogen), you’re invited to feel sorry for him. This because he has a mother who calls him in early morning California, forgetting the time difference from her home in Newark, because she nags him about his lack of a job and lack of a girlfriend. And oh yes, because, as she plans his upcoming visit, she imagines he’ll want to go to Pilates with her.
You learn all this in about two minutes at the start of The Guilt Trip, as Andy wakes, eats PopTarts and listens to his voicemail on his way out the door, where he has, predictably, left himself his own nagging post-its. He is his mother’s son, and resents it mightily. And so, you know, he’ll come to appreciate his mother over the course of the film, appreciate her sacrifices, her devotion, and even her complex emotional life.
That it imagines a movie mother might have such a life is to The Guilt Trip‘s credit. That it reveals that life through bits of shtick and disorganized on-the-road episodes is not. Andy, an organic chemist, and Joyce, a widow, start off at odds, literally seated across her kitchen table as he connives to do what he perceives as a nice thing for her, which is to reunite her (without her knowledge) with a long-lost, pre-his-dad love, whom he finds by a cursory Google search and a strangely simple set of phone calls to an office in San Francisco in the dead of night, an office that is apparently open 24/7 and utterly open with information regarding its top executives: logic is not this movie’s strong suit. Joyce, for her part, positively bursts with delight at the prospect of spending a few days in a car with her boy.
Needless to say, Joyce’s delight subsides just a little over the course of their ride, and Andy’s dread is fulfilled: they quarrel over her choice of books-on-tape (the sexy-talking Middlesex) and her habitual crunching on M&Ms in bed, about the weather and about his inability to make a sale. That has to do with the original motive for Andy’s road trip, which was to pitch his years-in-development product, an organic cleaner he’s named “Scieoclean,” ostensibly to indicate its scientific basis, but mostly to provide an weary joke whenever someone tries to pronounce it. In boardroom after boardroom, executives look dutifully bored as he pulls out his coconut and bottle of soy sauce — visual aids to denote the ingredients — and after each failure, he tells his mom he did great.
She may or may not believe him, but she acts as if she does, doting on her little Donald Trump as if he’s competing — again and again — in a fifth grade science fair. It’s the sort of part that some performers construct by broad gestures (see: Bette Midler, or again, Streisand in the Fokkers movies) and others treat with wry detachment (Debbie Reynolds). Streisand manages something in between, and for that you might feel grateful. Still, the movie doesn’t do her or Rogen any favors, squeezing them into embarrassing situations so they might react, whether to one another or for one another.
These reactions are about as perfunctory as you might imagine, and that in itself is too bad. You might think that, in casting Barbra Streisand, you’d feel obliged or even inspired to come up with a less pedestrian outing. The Guilt Trip is like a lot of so-called holiday movies, not quite cheerful, not quite amusing, and mostly careless, a jumble of family jokes, strung together along a rudimentary framework. Here, that framework, on which so much baggage is hung, is the trip, with the guilt vaguely associated with Joyce and Andy’s “Jewishness,” never mentioned but underlying. In another movie, this might pass for coyness or even subtlety. But in The Guilt Trip, the assumptions just seem lazy.