Of all the mismatched buddy couplings that come out of Hollywood, no one would have thought we’d see a movie headlined by Seth Rogen, millennial comedy’s go-to slacker, and Barbra Streisand, the divalicious musical goddess of show business, as they play son and mother. The Road-Trip Movie is as old as the hills, but The Guilt Trip, a high-concept road comedy, is propped up by the inspired pairing and their winningly lived-in chemistry. Upon first impressions, the trailer sells the film as a hacky sitcom with nagging, worrying, smothering, kvetching Jewish mother shtick, but then it quickly emerges as a pleasant surprise that favorably forgoes mediocrity and overstatement, in exchange for consistently mild chuckles and unexpectedly touching warmth.
Rogen plays Andy Brewster, a UCLA organic chemistry graduate-turned-inventor who’s having no luck selling his latest product, an organic cleaning product which he calls “Scieoclean,” but presses on by going cross-country and pitching it to major retail businesses. First flying home to New Jersey, he stops to visit his doting mother, Joyce (Streisand), who’s remained single since Andy’s father died when he was 8. Mom does let her son in on her former love life: She was in love with a boy, whose name was also Andrew, before marrying her son’s father. Andy is curious to reunite his lonely mom with her old flame, so he has her accompany him on an eight-day trip in a compact car to San Francisco, without her knowing his real intentions. With a mom like Joyce — she leaves her son a million voicemail messages, she always loves a bargain, she micro-manages Andy’s life and nags him about his “deep-seated problems with women,” and she has a 12-disc audiobook of “Middlesex” (a hermaphrodite’s autobiography) for the ride — what could go right?
Director Anne Fletcher (2009′s The Proposal and 2008′s 27 Dresses) hasn’t quite yet made a movie that hasn’t just been a case of likable, appealing actors rising above antiquated material. The Guilt Trip is no different, but screenwriter Dan Fogelman (2011′s Crazy, Stupid, Love.) has written an autobiographical script that hits some relationship beats which ring truer than not. (The credits even dedicate the film in loving memory of Joyce Fogelman.) Some of the comic pit stops are more amusing than others, dialogue exchanges and line deliveries bringing a lot more zing than the situation itself. For instance, Joyce says, “This place smells like strawberry gum,” when a highway scare leads them to a friendly strip club and later tells one of the mechanically-inclined dancers to bundle up. An all-you-can-eat contest at a Texas steakhouse, where Joyce opts to eat a 50 oz. steak dinner in an hour for free (if she can’t finish, it costs $100) and gets tips from a hunky cowboy (Brett Cullen), sounds lame on paper, but the set piece smartly avoids a gross-out gag and Streisand brings it home.
Carrying her first feature film since 1996′s The Mirror Has Two Faces, Streisand is such a warm, funny performer that her presence was sorely missed all these years. Yes, she played Roz Focker in Meet the Fockers (single-handedly saved by Babs and Dustin Hoffman), and the grotesque Little Fockers and proved her ability to do loose, shticky comedy, but the material here is surprisingly much less broad and sitcommy. Because of Streisand, Joyce is endearing and never becomes a completely annoying nag or caricature. The mere sight of Streisand quietly opening up a bag of M&M’s in bed and crunching on them while Andy tries to sleep in their hotel room is adorable, and it’s a cheer-worthy moment when she stands up to her own son who’s feeling no pain after a rejection with a Costco buyer. Cleaning up his language and weed-smoking slackerdom but not completely shackled, Rogen retains his comic timing and that recognizable laugh of his. He makes Andy a nice guy who loves his mom but becomes so exasperated when her maternal instincts come out.
Despite other familiar faces showing up in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them bit roles (Kathy Najimy, Miriam Margolyes, Colin Hanks, Nora Dunn, Adam Scott, Ari Graynor), this is really a two-character piece. Streisand and Rogen (also executive producers), neither of them riding shotgun to the other, find a mother-son compatibility that’s as smooth as butter and fun to watch for the duration. No, The Guilt Trip doesn’t reinvent the wheel, nor is it the sharpest of comedies, but it never has to be with these two around. Predictability prevails, but if such a tried-and-true formula were the death knell of movies, everyone would have stopped escaping to the multiplex decades ago. It’s a frothy, easygoing piece of entertainment that’s hard to resist, the kind of movie that you could take your mommy to see.
95 min., rated PG-13.