There’s nothing wrong with the Seth Rogen and Barbara Streisand big screen team up The Guilt Trip that a new director, writer, musical score, director of photography, and production designer couldn’t fix. It’s a road trip comedy so drab, flat, and painfully predictable that the few laughs it actually has appear out of nowhere like mirages in a desert hinting that salvation might be just around the corner only to have those same hopes dashed seconds later.
Struggling organic chemist turned inventor Andrew Brewster (Rogen) has embarked on a road trip from New York to Las Vegas to try and sell his new eco-friendly cleaning product that will make or break his career. After starting off at his childhood home and following some initial rejection, Andy asks his M&M munching, frog themed knickknack collecting, motormouthed mother (Streisand) to accompany him on the journey. Both are single following his break-up and her becoming a widow at the when Andy was 8. The real motivations for the two seem to be to have him meet up with his old high school sweetheart in Tennessee and he wants to take her to the true first love (and his actual namesake) in San Francisco.
Hilarity is supposed to ensue because the two are very obviously designed as having the prototypical Jewish mother and son relationship. He just wants her to go away at times, but he also wants nothing more than for her to be happy. She’s always feeding him, is incredibly naïve about the world, sabotages his plans with her own good intentions, and she can’t shut up for more than five seconds at a time.
Nothing that either character says or does seems even remotely surprising for a second and the outline of their whole trip can be seen in ever stop they make. Things get awkward when the pair are forced to share hotel rooms, stop off at a strip club during a snow storm, she follows him into pitch meetings, she takes on an eating challenge at a Texas steakhouse, she becomes a slot jockey immediately upon pulling into Vegas, etc. Not one of these plot points comes remotely as a shock and the list that each item is being ticked off on might as well just be an onscreen sidebar.
Director Anne Fletcher doesn’t help matters by making her film one of the ugliest and incomprehensively edited films of the year. Everything looks like some sort of strange nightmare with sets that were slapped together at the last minute to look as color draining as possible. Scenes that are supposed to have resolutions or punchlines are almost always getting cut short, which never allows either character to develop outside of their very basic, stereotypical trappings. Even the scenes that almost approach become effective are ruined by an incredibly annoying and on-the-nose musical score comprised of the most soulless acoustic guitar and gratingly inspirational string section in any film this year.
What’s even worse besides setting what should have been an excellent supporting cast adrift (including Colin Hanks, Adam Scott, and Brett Cullen) with less than nothing to do except show up and look baffled at what they see, is that Rogen and Streisand – both of whom can be very funny people – aren’t given anything funny to say and are forced to resort to depressing, shorthand schitck that’s been seen so many times before that these jokes should be officially moved to a retirement home.
But if you’ll notice, I didn’t say anything bad about Rogen or Streisand because it’s very apparent that both are trying their hardest to make this dreadful business work. The chemistry between the two of them feels like a natural mother and son relationship, and when the two strive to deliver Dan Fogelman’s stilted dialogue with a sense of realism it’s obvious that both want to make a better film than the one they’re stuck in. When they aren’t forced into being aggressively unfunny, they make things feel natural, and the few dramatic moments that show up are so very well done that they hint at a better version of the script and film that we sadly never get a chance to see.
Rogen does a great job dialing back all of the usual surface anger to give a sense of flustered frustration that the audience can connect with even if they don’t jive with the material. Streisand goes as unglamorous as possible as a frumpy woman who hasn’t given up on life since her son left the nest, but has instead gone in the exact opposite direction and tries too hard at everything. They are always on point even when the movie around them is too loose, slack, and standard to really generate any interest. It might as well just be a film about making the two of them tow an 18-wheeler cross country with their teeth.
Cast: Seth Rogen, Barbra Streisand
Directed by: Anne Fletcher
Top image: A scene from The Guilt Trip. Courtesy Paramount Pictures.