The product of two negative integers is a positive one, but the product of two cliché film premises is not an original one, as proven by “The Guilt Trip,” a relentlessly uninspired pairing of the road-trip movie and the mother-son bonding movie. When even the smartly cast Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen–the quintessential Jewish mom and neurotic adult offspring–aren’t good for laughs, you know the material is lacking.
Rogen’s Andy is a brilliant but marketing-challenged inventor of a revolutionary all-natural cleaning product that he’s traveling from coast-to-coast to present to retailers. He brings along Streisand’s widowed Joyce, who’s constantly sticking her nose in his personal life, to conduct a surprise reunion with her old flame from San Francisco at the end of the trip, in the hope that she’ll leave him alone if she finds a boyfriend. You can connect the dots: they bond along the way and Andy learns to appreciate Mom again.
The predictable nature of the narrative would have been forgivable had the dialogue between Andy and Joyce been humorous and/or perceptive about familial relationships. But that’s beyond screenwriter Dan Fogelman’s capabilities. “The Guilt Trip” feels like the result of Fogelman seeing Albert Brooks’ “Mother” late one night on HBO and deciding to cobble together the most generic, lowest-common denominator rip-off he could think of. The rapport between the two characters is strictly boilerplate; a week after seeing the film, the only joke I can recall without consulting my notes is one that pokes fun of older women’s love of Peanut M&Ms, a bit that may very well have been written by the PR team at the Mars Candy Company and not Fogelman.
In fact, the majority of the laughs in “The Guilt Trip” come from the scenes intended to be serious, like one in which Joyce agrees to an eating challenge at a roadside dining establishment, wolfing down a porterhouse the size of a cat, only to have a dashing cowboy (Brett Cullen) ask for her phone number because he “like[s] a woman who can eat.” Once again, I am left to assume that writer Fogelman’s inspiration was something on late night cable (Food Network and County Music Television are next to one another on my dial), likely watched while imbibing. The concluding sequence in which Andy and Joyce show up at her old flame’s house is likewise embarrassingly funny in its superficial attempts at pathos, as well as its puzzling use of reasonably big names (Adam Scott and Ari Graynor) for thankless bit parts.
Director Anne Fletcher has had modest success with mass-appeal fluff in the past, largely due to her ability to mine the charisma of her leading actors. She isn’t able repeat that directorial strategy here, bound to Fogelman’s lifeless script. Whereas the romance in Fletcher’s “27 Dresses” and the dancing in her “Step Up” gave Katherine Heigl, James Marsden, Channing Tatum, and Jena Dewan stuff to be charismatic at, Streisand and Rogen are simply left to rot in a rental car together in “The Guilt Trip.” The one inadequacy that a comedy can’t overcome is not being funny.