THE GUILT TRIP could have gone many ways, most of them unfortunate. Yet, in the able hands of Barbra Steisand and Seth Rogan, what could have been a painful excursion into the murky depths of schmaltz is, instead, a sharp and funny look at mother love and filial duty and what happens when the two are trapped in a tiny car for an eight-day, cross-country road trip..
Rogan is Andy, a nice boy with a big dreams, a great product, and no talent whatsoever for selling it. Streisand is his mother, Joyce, a mother hen who hasnít quite worked out, at least in practical terms, that Andy is almost 30. Andy, for his part, hasnít quite worked out how to react to his mother as something other than a 10-year-old. Her aggressive and perky mothering, his ironic smiles and muttering not quite under his breath will reach a breaking point during their odyssey, and in the finest of classically Aristotelian traditions, will bring about catharsis. Though it will be played out in a far less stuffy fashion.
This is a standard story, but Streisand and Rogan, armed with a script that is schticky, but never schmaltzy, are pros getting the very best from predictable situations. They are so good, that there is actually a sort of pleasure in watching them take the predictable and making it seem something other that stale. Itís the way that they have the two characters sharing the same dialogue, but having completely different conversations, him ironically tolerant of his motherís endless chirping concern, and her blithely clueless about how crazy sheís making him. In a quintessential moment in the Jewish mother-son relationship, Joyce turns Andyís invitation around, innocently but devastatingly turning it into an excuse to question his love for her. Even Andy, who has dealt with this his entire life looks a little stunned, and with Streisand making Joyce genuinely sincere rather than manipulative, Andy has nowhere to go. Itís a superb bit of writing and acting, and while one of the best moments, is only one of many including a tiny, almost throwaway line Rogan groans with a lifetime of practice in response to Joyceís offer to buy Andy underwear.
The refreshing part is that Joyce, as written or played, is not stupid, and while Andy has that graduate degree in organic chemistry, heís not as smart as he thinks he is, or as dumb, when the pitches heís making for his all-natural, eco-friendly cleanser donít pan out and his bank account starts heading straight to zero. Yet they are both adorable in a film that makes sweet something a little tart instead of cloying. Andyís motives, for example, for bringing his mother along on his business trip may be selfless, even noble for the fussing and clucking he knows comes with it, but there is that dash of an ulterior motive to keep things from getting boring for either of them or for the audience.
Streisand nudges, Rogan does a slow burn, and neither of them has a mean bone in their bodies. Neither does THE GUILT TRIP, which is a paean to mothers who mean well, and sons who know the truth of that deep in their hearts, somewhere under the embarrassment, confusion, and guilt. Groundbreaking, no. Delightful, absolutely.