The stereotype of the smothering Jewish mother and her passive (and passive-aggressive) grown son is nothing new in pop culture. The Guilt Trip could have easily dipped into a mewling, mommy-hating therapy session, but star Barbra Streisand manages to transform a New Jersey widow who loves collecting frogs, coffee klatches, and coupons with her fellow yentes, into something more than her neuroses. Seth Rogen is an amiable foil as her son Andy, a frustrated organic chemist whose invention — a cleaner so natural you could drink it! — is going nowhere. Frankly, Andy and his product are both pretty boring until Joyce comes along.
Andy makes a rare pit stop at his childhood home before launching on a cross-country tour trying to convince execs to stock his product. After Joyce reveals a rather humanizing tidbit about her past, he decides to invite her along. She's thrilled to spend time with her son, who seems alternately amused and bemused by his colorful mom. They fall into a familiar squabbly rhythm that hits pretty close to home, especially during the holiday season.
Streisand and Rogen's chemistry keeps The Guilt Trip going. You get the feeling that Rogen, who has been stretching himself in more serious roles like the cuckolded husband in Take This Waltz, almost just shows up to have Streisand bounce off of him. It's hard to believe he's simmering with rage at his overbearing mom, and it's easy to see that she is lonely and harmless; without these two factors, the movie could have fallen flat or taken a much darker turn. (The latter would have been an interesting drama, although a different movie entirely.) His little digs at her are mumbled asides that seem harmless but add up, although Joyce can be kind of annoying in a particular way that only a child can sense about his/her parent. Another actor with a less gentle demeanor could have made Andy a real jerk, but even in his jerkiest moments, he's just sort of sad. There doesn't feel like there's much at stake here. The smaller moments are what sing, even if they're a little sappy.
What's so often overlooked by family comedies, especially ones that have the opportunity to vilify the mother, is that your parents are human. They had lives before you ever arrived, and they will continue to do so after you've left. More importantly, they have love lives and sexual histories, whether you like it or not. Joyce is no naïf; she's less flummoxed by stopping at a strip club (bartended by the wonderful Dale Dickey) than Andy is. She likes to have a good time, and men like her. People like her. They don't particularly like or are impressed by Andy. Although Joyce questions whether or not she's been a good mother, especially since Andy is still single (The horror!), she never verges on truly castrating or cruel. When she finally lets loose in a total Streisand moment with a monologue that begins, ''You little sh*t…'' you're on her side. Andy is being a little sh*t. Like many of us, especially around the holidays, he forgets his mom is human.
The Guilt Trip is an interesting companion to the Apatow canon, if we can call it that. It's hard not to associate Rogen's Andy Brewster with his earlier comedic roles. There's not a lot to him, although Dan Fogelman's script does try and add a few layers that should surprise us. If we try to fill in the blanks, it's easy to wonder if Andy is a slightly more grown-up version of Ben Stone, who, in Knocked Up, has a dysfunctional relationship with his father and only got it together when he was trying to impress a woman. It would have been good to get to know Andy a little bit more, but it's hard to compete with Babs, and he's smart to let her take over.
In the end, The Guilt Tripis more about Joyce than Andy, which makes it much more in line with adult fare like Hope Springs than Rogen's typical beat. While Joyce is still defined by her lack, in many ways — she's single because, she reasons, she wants to be able