Sunday, January 20, 2013

"The Guilt Trip"

 2 / 5 

Let us take it as a matter of faith that both Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand are gifted comic actors.  This is something you might not realize solely on the basis of The Guilt Trip, a listless road-trip movie that makes some seriously wrong turns.

You don't have to reach as far back as What's Up Doc? or For Pete's Sake to see Streisand's gifts -- they were on lesser but still fine display in 2004's Meet the Fockers.  She's great at situational comedy and even better (or, at least, was decades ago) at flat-out farce.  Movies like Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin prove Rogen knows how to mine comic gold out of seemingly the most mundane of premises, though his career has taken a rather odd trajectory of late.

So, what goes wrong in The Guilt Trip?  For starters, it doesn't seem to know what to do with the talents of either of its stars, even though they're its executive producers.  They're both playing it way too safe here as Andy, a struggling thirtysomething scientist-turned-inventor, and his overbearing Jewish mother, Joyce, who decide to take a road trip together.

The motivation for the trip isn't as patently absurd as, say, Steve Martin's and John Candy's in Planes, Trains and Automobiles or as weird as Albert Brooks's was in Mother (a similar movie that's superior on every level).  It's forced and contrived, as Andy sets up a series of meetings to pitch the non-chemical cleaner he has invented and decides to take his mother along when she reveals something about her (and his) past he never knew.

And there, precisely, is the dilemma.  The movie is marketed as "One Mother of a Road Trip," when really it tries almost too hard to be a warm, touching, heartfelt tale of a mother reconnecting with her distant son.  Marketing aside, you don't put Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand in a movie together to watch them emote -- unless, perhaps, you're Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand.

Every minor mishap and hazard along this road comes with thorough emotional explanations, as if watching these two wind up in a topless bar or scarfing down a 50-oz. steak wouldn't be enough.  There's nary a bare breast or hint of vomit to be seen -- and, let's face it, that's what you'd want to see in this post-Apatow comedy world.  The broad, slapsticky stuff is pushed aside almost entirely; in fact, you'll have to stay until the very last of the end credits to see the movie's sole laugh-out-loud bit of physical comedy, which didn't even make it into the film itself.

Really, why make a movie like this unless you're going to mine the comic possibilities inherent in 70-year-old Babs getting drunk in Vegas?  Instead, she sheepishly walks into the room at 7 a.m. and tells her son what she did the night before.  A side trip to the Grand Canyon doesn't involve a mule or a Native American headdress or a spill in the Colorado River; the two stars just stand there and try to riff off of National Lampoon's Vacation for a moment.

And yet, somehow, The Guilt Trip isn't a total failure.  Streisand is, as she always has been, a confident, ingratiating screen presence, the kind of actress you like almost despite yourself.  In full schlub mode, Rogen is charmingly flummoxed by his inability to find success and happiness.  And in a few of these warm-and-fuzzy moments, of which there are far too many in The Guilt Trip, the movie works.

Most notably, I looked up the name Ari Graynor to see who the actress was who so successfully delivers a single word on screen that brings an unexpectedly strong emotional core to a dramatic scene that threatens to fall disappointingly flat.  And when, in a cheap motel, Streisand finally lets loose and tells her son exactly what she thinks of the way he's been acting, she once again demonstrates how accomplished she is at toeing that fine line between anger and sweetness, between humor and pathos.

But, boy, The Guilt Trip makes you work for those few moments, and work far too hard.  Neither pleasingly bland nor riotously inappropriate (you wonder what that movie might have been like), The Guilt Trip is an unfortunate, almost unrelievedly mediocre misfire. 

Viewed Jan. 20, 2013 -- Pacific's Sherman Oaks 5


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