There are at least two movies opening this holiday season which seem like they were stolen from the script vault at Touchstone Pictures, circa 1992. The first, “Parental Guidance,” features the heavyweight one-two punch of Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, concerns grandparents outwitted by their grandkids, and could play snugly in a double feature alongside “Father of the Bride Part II.” And opening this week is “The Guilt Trip,” another movie that tries to wring guffaws out of a similarly super-tired idea (taking a cross-country road trip with your unbelievably stereotypical and annoying Jewish mother). Sure, the mother is played by Barbra Streisand and that does (admittedly) add some sizzle, but it can’t compensate for how sitcom-y and dated the whole thing is and how, honestly, the movie probably plays better at 1 AM on TBS. Including the commercials.
The outrageously simple set-up follows: Seth Rogen plays Andy Brewster, a scientist and amateur inventor who has developed a new, totally organic cleaning product. He flies out to New Jersey to spend some time with said Jewish mother Joyce (Streisand), before renting a car and hitting a series of appointments across the country. The night before he’s set to leave, his mother tells him a heartbreaking story about the man she loved before his father (who died when Andy was a boy). Andy, curious, uses Bing (which for some reason has become a hot product-placement search engine of late) and sees that this man is still alive and in San Francisco, and promptly adds another stop onto his trip and invites his mother to accompany him.
As far as comedy conceits go, sure, it’s not exactly original, but it’s a concept that could probably hold some promise. The script was written by Dan Fogelman, who, after “Crazy Stupid Love” and “Tangled,” has become one of Hollywood’s hottest screenwriters, and the film was directed by Anne Fletcher, the choreographer-turned-director who did “Step Up” and “The Proposal.” Under the right circumstances it could be something like a tamer, middle-aged-friendly version of a Todd Phillips road comedy, with mother and son getting into a series of wacky misadventures and begrudgingly learning about each other along the way. Maybe, in a “Brave“-inspired twist, Babs could get turned into a bear. Now that’d be some solid holiday entertainment.
Instead, “The Guilt Trip” goes down the path most traveled, indulging in a series of well-worn clichés and devoting a minimal amount of time to character development or actual conflict. The middle section of the movie is an endless series of scenes where Seth Rogen rolls his eyes at the outrageousness of his mother and Streisand babbles endlessly, trying desperately to make the wafer-thin script into something (anything) more. But not even the Herculean efforts of a talented warhorse like Streisand can save this thing.
It’s a shame, too, because “The Guilt Trip” isn’t wholly regrettable – there’s a pretty funny running joke about how the two of them are listening to an audio book of “Middlesex,” which is both painfully inappropriate and excruciatingly long, and a moment when Streisand comes out of a convenience store and accidently steps into a similarly-colored car is both hilarious and very true to life. But mostly it’s a dull, lifeless missed opportunity.
The road trip format lends itself to some picaresque flourishes, not to mention an opportunity to highlight all the crazy characters and situations you can encounter along the road. But “The Guilt Trip” avoids this almost completely. They stop briefly at Andy’s ex-girlfriend’s house (Yvonne Strahovski), where she lives happily with her husband (Colin Hanks). In another sequence, they stop off at a honky tonk steak bar and Joyce agrees to take part in a challenge to devour a giant slab of meat. This is sort of a funny idea but we’re not sure why she’s doing it, exactly, because if she eats it all she doesn’t have to pay, but Andy still has to pay for his meal (maybe they both eat for free?) Towards the end of the film Joyce remarks that she had a wonderful time because she ate a really big steak and got her ears pierced. It’s astounding to think that the filmmakers went out of their way to point out just how little actually happens in the movie.
This oversight is even more baffling considering the supporting cast who sometimes just appear for a single line of dialogue. In addition to Strahovski and Hanks, Casey Wilson, Ari Graynor, Adam Scott, Kathy Najimy and Nora Dunn all show up, fleetingly, and are just as quickly forgotten about. It’s mind-boggling, but it plays into how underdeveloped the film is. Andy clearly has some issues with failure, and his cleaning product endeavor isn’t exactly taking off (he bombs every pitch meeting), but this is only given superficial consideration. If more personal details were known about him, then it would add considerable investment in this old Jewish lady version of “The Odyssey.” (Also, we never see what makes his wonder-product so amazing.)
Overall, there is a fundamental lack of excitement or energy; it’s a 95-minute movie that feels twice as long as “The Hobbit.” Fletcher doesn’t direct as much as she just happens to there as Streisand and Rogen bicker inside a fake car; her direction could be charitably be described as lethargic. There is a shocking lack of chemistry between the two leads, even though this is Streisand’s big comeback (she hasn’t been the lead in a film since 1996’s Oscar-nominated “The Mirror Has Two Faces“), and undoubtedly, when Streisand is good, she reaches nearly stratospheric levels of wonder. Here, though, her face surgically smoothed and forced to play a dopey, predictable, underwritten role, she flounders. It makes her supporting performances in the “Meet the Parents” sequels seem downright dignified in comparison. And that’s really saying something. [C-]