The Guilt Trip is a movie that should speak to a great number of people. Similar to this year’s Brave, which told a story about the bond between a mother and daughter, the film is about a mother/son connection many of us take for granted. Even though many of us have grown up and moved on and occasionally don’t want anything to do with our mothers, that connection is forever binding and the love is unyielding. The Guilt Trip hits some right notes when exploring this bond, even making its sugary sweetness bearable, so the movie’s problem isn’t that it isn’t narratively interesting. The problem is that it just isn’t very funny. Pegged a comedy, The Guilt Trip’s jokes miss far more than they hit, which drags the surrounding tenderness of its story down to a point where it simply can’t be recommended.
Andrew Brewster (Seth Rogen) is an ex-employee of the Environmental Protection Agency. A chemistry whiz-kid, he has put all of his heart, soul and money into a product called “Scieoclean,” a science based cleaning product that is more effective than other retail cleaning products, but also devoid of any harmful chemicals, to the point where you could even drink it if you wanted to. He’s currently on a cross country road trip where he hopes to sell his product to some major retailers, but first, he goes to New York to see his mom, Joyce (Barbra Streisand). While there, he learns that he was actually named after his mother’s old lover, whom she still retained feelings for. His mom hasn’t gone on a date since his father died when he was eight, so Andrew tracks this man down and discovers that he lives and works in San Francisco. Despite his mother’s grating nature, he asks her to accompany him on his road trip, not revealing that his final “meeting” stop is actually her old lover’s place of work.
Right from the get-go, The Guilt Trip is a hard pill to swallow. Andrew comes off like an unappreciative son, someone who doesn’t necessarily realize how hard his mother must have worked to raise him after the death of his father. He does his best to avoid her and doesn’t even want to talk to her half the time. He’s been so caught up in the stress of what’s amounting to a failed business venture that his mother’s well-being hardly seems to cross his mind. When he finally decides to ask her to accompany him on his road trip, he actually gives her a very short time limit, mere seconds, to decide before pulling the offer off the table. It’s his last ditch effort to stop this trip from happening, yet we’re supposed to believe that he cares enough about her to track down her ex-lover and rekindle their flame? Any believability such a scenario has comes only if you twist it into a selfish motivation; after all, if Joyce is busy with a new (old?) man, she’ll leave Andrew alone.
The Guilt Trip doesn’t give a good first impression, but it thankfully gets better as it goes on. It’s an uphill battle it never really wins—if the peak is a recommendable movie, the film gets a few feet from it and collapses—but it does an admirable job of saving itself from what would have otherwise been an instant write-off. Despite her occasional annoyance, Joyce is energetic and loving, clearly caring more for her son than anything else in the world, as a mother should, and as past events in their lives surface forward, more layers behind these characters are revealed. They aren’t simple archetypes as the beginning suggests, but rather fully realized characters who appear to have lived full lives before the lights went down and we met them. From a screenwriting perspective, that’s a difficult thing to accomplish, especially from a start as lousy as the one here.
The reason The Guilt Trip never takes off, though, is because it’s weighed down by a serious lack of laughs. Through all the crazy exploits and quick one-liners, the film shows itself to be comedically shallow, rarely producing laughter, of which is slight when it actually does. Rogen, the dependable comic he usually is, is much more reserved here (because the script calls for it, to be fair). It’s instead Streisand who gets to go crazy, but, if the end credits ad-lib sequence is any indication, she isn’t very good at it. Perhaps allowing Rogen to summon his wackiness alongside Streisand would have hurt the balanced story, but it certainly would have provided more laughs. That surprisingly sweet tale about a son and mother who love each other, even though they don’t fully understand (and sometimes annoy) each other is the heart and soul of the movie; nearly all of its failures stem from its lack of laughs. If you’re a son or a mother with a son, you’re bound to find something to latch onto in The Guilt Trip, but everyone else will deem it a waste of time.
The Guilt Trip receives 2.5/5