Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time fathoming why the characters in so many holiday movies cringe at the thought of reunion with their families. Am I the only one that likes visiting and talking to my relatives? It’s a mixed blessing. While it might be a sign of healthy relationships, I’ve been deprived of what appears to be endless source material for movies with a release date during the last two months of every year. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.
Apparently Andy Brewster (Seth Rogen) doesn’t share that sentiment in Anne Fletcher’s The Guilt Trip, a road comedy by Dan Fogelman that’s almost more buddy picture than it is portrait of familial angst and secrets. Andy is a down-on-his-luck inventor who has put all of his financial eggs in the basket of Scieoclean, a cleaning product made only from natural, body-friendly resources such as soy and coconut. After flubbing his latest his pitch, he hops a cross-country flight to visit his widowed mother, Joyce (Barbra Streisand), in New Jersey (both Rogen and Streisand are also listed as executive producers; Evan Goldberg, Rogen’s longtime friend and producing partner, also gets a credit).
While there is no overt mention of Judaism, Joyce is Jewish Mother incarnate, which is to say mostly pushy with a little bit of pathetic thrown in. Within minutes of landing at Newark, Joyce is fussing with her son’s clothes, recommending he come do yoga with her, and, yes, guilting him into joining her and her other single female friends for dinner (oh, and I forgot the nearly dozen phone messages she left him starting before sunrise that very morning). The plan is for him to stay for a few days, then embark on a cross-country road trip peppered with stops to peddle Scieoclean to various potential buyers, including Costco. And while Joyce exhausts Andy with questions about his love life and recounts his dating history in no time, circumstances lead a well-meaning Andy to invite Joyce on a road trip. She accepts with all the pep of an intended bride saying yes to the dress.
What follows is a series of sitcom-friendly tropes familiar to those who’ve seen other Fletcher movies such as 27 Dresses and The Proposal, movies more interested in arriving at a happy ending than in earning it along the way. According to press notes, Fogelman based his script on real a road trip he and his mother (who is actually named Joyce, and to whom this film is dedicated in memory of) took from the garden state to Sin City. So it’s extra curious how many times these characters fail to act like real people. Particularly Joyce, who accompanies Andy to his presentations and incredulously expects to be able to sit in the room with him. And thinks nothing of interrupting him mid-pitch. And how does a careful woman who insists on hydrating when drinking even the slightest bit of alcohol, who pinches pennies as often as she can, and who warns of the dangers of hitchhikers end up in a bar swilling back martinis with strange men after one heated argument? (To say nothing of how she ludicrously ends up driving around a hitchhiker.)
Why must storytellers reduce their characters to morons when in search of a laugh? Most of the comedy, and the occasional condescension, are unfairly apportioned. It primarily comes at Joyce’s expense, who meddles when she should mind her business (even when she has sage advice about how Andy should market his product) and proves to have total lapses in common sense. Does anyone see two letters missing from a roadside topless bar and think it’s a tapas joint? Meanwhile, Fogelman fesses up little about Andy. We get, mostly from an outtake, the idea that his father passed away when he was still young, and that his mother never moved on, and that most of his adult life has been spent in three thousand miles from home following his science degree at UCLA. But Guilt spends more time unveiling Joyce’s romantic secrets than it does Andy’s. An early girlfriend is mentioned (and later, fruitlessly, seen), but other romantic travails go unmentioned, let alone adding further understanding to what may or may not make Andy tick. (My take: he’s hardworking, busy and poor, making dating a problem. But neither Fogelman nor Rogen do much to clue us in to see if that is right.)
The two leads largely run on cruise control, but they have an easy rapport that doesn’t immediately scream out blood relations as much as it does similarly-honed comic timing. While Rogen merely pivots within his schlubby, semi-awkward wheelhouse, Streisand is less forced than she has usually appeared onscreen – though it is clear that plenty of attention has still been lavished on her fingernails and hair. Perhaps more so than on any nuance beyond merely hitting marks in Fletcher’s film. I bet the outtakes possess gems that feel far more spontaneous than the ones that made final cut in Guilt Trip, whose characters traverse the country but never stay in any locale for particularly long. This isn’t a movie that’s interested in lingering.