There is no way to explain chemistry on screen; either two stars have it or they don’t. When you see two actors who do have it, who do click, it makes for a very special film. And that’s what “The Guilt Trip” is. A very special film with two excellent actors who have that elusive, wonderful screen chemistry that’s great to watch and cannot be faked.
Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen are the heart and soul of “The Guilt Trip,” the story of a mother and son who impulsively take a cross-country road trip in which they re-discover each other.
This is an important business trip for Andy Brewster, Rogen’s character. He’s trying to pitch a new product — an organic cleaning spray — that he’s put his blood, sweat and tears into creating. At 30, Andy’s feeling the pressure to make it. He’s struck out in his personal life, so it’s even more important to become a financial success.
But while home in New Jersey to visit his widowed mom, Joyce, Andy can’t help but notice that mom’s not exactly thriving on her own. His mom is an imminently self-reliant and self-assured lady, but he wonders if she’s missing something in her life. Is the weekly book club meeting and collecting ceramic frogs really enough for her?
As family, Joyce and Andy haven’t really drifted apart, but they haven’t shared enough time together since he left home for college to really feel connected. The love is there, of that’s there’s no question, but it takes some a spark to forge a tie between the two.
Joyce’s revelation from her past — something she’s always wanted to tell Andy — is the catalyst for change. Andy asks his mom to come on the trip with him, secretly thinking he can reunite her with her first love.
Director Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal”) and screenwriter Dan Fogelman (“Cars”) wisely keep the humor firmly based in reality. There’s no wild situations or crazy physical comedy — like you’ve seen in other road trip movies. And don’t expect the vulgar comedy from the “Focker” movies. This is not that kind of comedy. “The Guilt Trip” finds its humor in the dialog and the interaction between Joyce and Andy.
“The Guilt Trip” is based on a real-life trip Fogelman had taken with his late mother (also named Joyce), to whom the filmmakers’ dedicate the picture. He really drove from New Jersey to Las Vegas with his mother, and she did eat a 50 oz. steak at The Big Texan restaurant.
What’s funny about the picture are the characters and the truthful situations. Just the notion of Andy and Joyce shoulder-to-shoulder in a compact car (her suggestion because she had a discount coupon!) and staying in the same room in budget motels makes you laugh. And what makes the film hilarious and, ultimately, poignant, is what happens to the characters along the way.
What struck me most about “The Guilt Trip” was the joyfulness of the film. I felt like I’d taken the journey with Andy and Joyce and I had a great time being with them. They were characters who’d grown and changed and become more fun with every mile that went by. I would have gladly shared the trip back to New Jersey if they decided to drive instead of fly.
But the goodbye scene at the airport really says it all about their relationship; Joyce tells Andy that more than Andy’s father or her long lost love, it was Andy who was the love of her life.
That’s a sentiment that millions of mothers around the world probably share when it comes to their kids. The bond between parent and child is powerful and, as Barbra said while promoting this project, “The Guilt Trip” is a love story about that relationship. In that way alone, “The Guilt Trip” delivers in an unexpected, wonderfully satisfying way.
The script bears Fogelman’s quirky humor, evident in last year’s “Crazy Stupid Love,” and the banter between Streisand and Rogen is aided by their inspired improvisations. Fletcher encouraged the stars to use their innate comic gifts, letting them shine through the characters. That’s precisely what they did, and not only are their riffs funny, they feel completely real and natural.
Barbra Streisand, who hasn’t starred in a film since “The Mirror Has Two Faces” in 1996, proves again that she’s one of the best screen actors of the last 40 years. She’s terrific in “The Guilt Trip.” Her performance is nuanced and sharp. As Joyce, she’s never a cartoon Jewish mother, doing shtick that you’ve seen many times before.
No, Streisand’s an every mother. As you watch her carefully trying to win Andy’s approval when she offers a suggestion, only to recoil in disappointment when she senses his annoyance, you feel Joyce’s every emotion. Barbra never opts for the over-sentimentality that would have sunk the character, nor does she reach for jokes that aren’t there.
There’s a great motel room scene in which Andy flips out over his failure to sell his product, directing his anger at mom when he’s really mad at himself. Up to that point, it’s been a fun ride, a series of giggles. After that scene, things get serious.
Joyce’s reaction to Andy’s tirade, her righteous indignation, is spellbinding. Joyce says the words that need to be said, standing up for every mother everywhere who’s ever needed to get their kid’s head screwed on straight. It’s also the kind of scene that’s uniquely suited to Barbra Streisand. She’s always had the guts and gusto to make that kind of scene work. You believe every pent-up emotion is 100% true.
As for Seth Rogen, this is not his typical slacker/stoner character, the guy with a sweet side but not much else going for him. Nope, Andy is a different character for Seth and he rises to the occasion. Could it be that Barbra brings out the best in Seth? I think so because he’s never been a more attractive guy on screen to me.
There’s another scene in “The Guilt Trip” that really convinced me that there was more to this film than just a happy time. When Joyce and Andy reach San Francisco, the last stop on the trip, they believe they’ve found Andy’s namesake. They expect to meet Joyce’s first love.
Well, not exactly. The way that plot point is resolved is one of the high points of the picture, a real “AHHH” moment, and a crowd pleaser for sure. Things work out in a most satisfactory way.
If I have any criticism of “The Guilt Trip” it’s this: I wanted more. The film is well paced and moves from scene with scene with alacrity, but wonderful actors like Colin Hanks, Kathy Najimy, Casey Wilson and Adam Scott, appear and disappear just as quickly. Sure, they’re not the focus of the film, but still, I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of them interacting with Seth and Barbra.
As Ben Graw, the man who watches Joyce successfully eat a 50 oz. steak (and all the sides), Brett Cullen is downright perfect. In a charming post-meal scene in which he asks her out some time in the future, viewers are given just enough of a glimmer of what Joyce’s next chapter in life might entail.
Invariably, somebody will ask what kind of movie is reminiscent of “The Guilt Trip.” Is it a road picture like “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” or a family comedy like “Mother”? Well, no and no. It’s really something more unique. It’s essentially a heartfelt, two-character piece that’s going to make you feel good about life.
In a time when other movie screens are filled with French peasants singing of their sorry lives, Islamic terrorists being captured by the military, elves and wizards, as well as snarky 30-somethings who don’t want to reach 40, “The Guilt Trip” is a slice of real life and a sweet ride to boot. I highly recommend you hop on board!