Welcome to New Jersey! When "Andy Brewster" (Seth Rogen) arrives at Newark Airport, his mother "Joyce" (Barbra Streisand) is there to greet him. But although Joyce wears a mile-wide smile, every inch of her tremulous body signals that visits from Andy are few and far between. And thus begins a lovely new film from Anne Fletcher in which two people in one of mankind's most intense dyadic relationships learn to treasure each other anew as separate and unique individuals.
There are good reasons why the "road trip" is such a popular movie genre. As the principals travel from Point A to Point B, filmmakers behind the scenes have a constant supply of raw energy at the ready (new scenery, zany characters, clever plot twists). In the right hands, each stop along the way becomes another jewel in a bracelet audiences can close at the end with a satisfying click of the clasp: "The circle of life."
In The Guilt Trip, Andy invites Joyce to join him on a cross-country drive so he can pitch to potential distributors like Kmart, Costco, and the Home Shopping Network before returning home to LA. Andy is an organic chemist who has invented a good product (a biodegradable, child-safe and eco-friendly cleaning solution), but he's not much of a salesman. Faced with the prospect of all those strange faces, he suddenly wants his Mommy.
I don't think we ever know exactly where they start from (although there is one scene explicitly set in Montclair), but suffice it to say that while Joyce lives in a comfortable suburban home, she will never meet up with Carmela Soprano in the neighborhood grocery store. Joyce, who has been a widow for decades, lives a quiet life with her friends and her books and her television shows. She spends her time waiting for calls from Andy, who never really needs to call her because she's always calling him. So Joyce is stunned when Andy asks her to come along, but she's immediately on board.
I won't reveal any of the details of their various stops in Tennessee, Texas, Nevada, and California except to say they're tender and endearing, engineered to allow both characters to know more about themselves as well as each other by the time they finally part at the San Francisco airport. Yes, there is a well-earned happy ending prompting both smiles and sniffles.
Rogen is best known for his roles in raunchy Judd Apatow films like Knocked Up and Funny People, but now that he's famous he's also taken roles in small Indies like this year's heart-wrenching Take This Waltz, in which he plays Michelle Williams' Jewish husband "Lou." Is Andy Brewster Jewish? It's hard to imagine Barbra Streisand playing anyone who isn't Jewish, but except for one murmured Yiddish endearment ("tateleh"), the Brewsters, while implicitly Jewish, are never explicitly so. Let's just say it's a given.
Streisand, playing her first lead role in decades, is a joy to watch on screen. (She had funny bits as Ben Stiller's mom "Roz Focker" in Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers, but her last starring role was "Rose Morgan" in The Mirror Has Two Faces way back in 1996!) This character, "Joyce Brewster," couldn't be more different from the real Barbra Streisand, and yet she's genuine and totally believable (enough so that her intrusive kvetching is sometimes as irritating to the audience as it is to Andy). Her subtle delivery in the penultimate scene, set high on a hilltop in one of San Francisco's "Painted Ladies," is a lovely little grace note.
Screenwriter Dan Fogelman is definitely Jewish and according to the buzz, he based this story on a real road trip he once took with his own mother (now deceased). If so, this may explain the film's main flaw which is that we don't really know enough about Joyce's backstory. But director Anne Fletcher compensates for this by making Joyce totally vivid in each moment on screen, and so, in the end, I really didn't care much about what she'd really been doing all those years before getting into her car to drive to Newark Airport.
Fletcher began her career as a dancer and made her movie breakthrough as a choreographer in films like Hairspray, but now she's turned to directing, and she's already created two films that have been critical bombs but commercial successes. Like The Guilt Trip, Fletcher's earlier films 27 Dresses and The Proposal are more complex and therefore more rewarding than they appear to be. Dismissed as "RomComs" (Romantic Comedies), both 27 Dresses and The Proposal were really about characters approaching 30 who can't quite grow up until they recognize their parents as people (flaws and all). Clearly The Guilt Trip is a natural addition to this body of work.
I expect The Guilt Trip to get a lot of negative reviews, but don't let that stop you. It's sweet and life-affirming and in this season of hype and bluster, you can do a whole lot worse at your local multiplex.
Photo Credit: Sam Emerson/Paramount Pictures Corporation