Like Hope Springs earlier this year, The Guilt Trip is notable mostly for its relatively unconventional premise: exploring an estranged familial relationship without sensationalizing it. Sadly, that only makes it harder to watch the movie flub that promising idea. The strained ties that bind Barbra Streisand's overprotective but well-meaning mother to Seth Rogen's willful, petulant inventor are in fact interesting enough to sustain a movie, and The Guilt Trip's creators do make a concentrated effort to be less manic and thus ostensibly more sensitive to mother and son's guarded relationship. But the film's boilerplate plot, trite sentiments, lousy jokes and generically quirky characterization of Streisand as a momster sand away the film's interesting rough edges.
Rogen's Andrew Brewster is all that his widowed mother Joyce (Streisand) seems to think about. She calls him constantly and is always worriedly trying to nudge him towards some potentially life-enriching new thing, whether it's hydrating more often or doing Pilates. But Andrew's got other things on his mind, like trying to peddle his eco-friendly stain cleaner to the likes of Costco and Kmart.
Even so, Andrew worries about his mother's emotional well-being too. So when Joyce tells him that he was named after someone she once loved very much, Andrew takes it upon himself to reunite his mother with the man who got away. That means doing what every mismatched buddy team has done since Stan met Ollie: hitting the road together and trying to bond.
In a movie whose wacky quixotic incidents speak louder than its nobler ambitions, screenwriter Dan Fogelman's good intentions rarely rise above his and director Anne Fletcher's staid execution. It's bad enough that Fogelman and Fletcher never develop the central dynamic between mother and son, beyond bland conversations about lost loves that essentially start and stop with, "Well, why aren't you seeing anybody now?" But it's even worse to see Joyce's character burdened with buffoonish tics. As dire as the montage is where Andrew asks Joyce about menopause while the Scissor Sisters chirp "Take Your Mama" on the soundtrack, it's not as toxic as Joyce's meet-cute with a Texan good ol' boy (Brett Cullen), where she's trying to eat a 4-pound steak in under an hour so Andrew doesn't have to pay.
The Guilt Trip is especially a waste of Streisand, whose comic gifts scarcely got a warm-up in the Focker movies, let alone a workout. While Streisand gives a fairly down-to-earth performance in the movie's first third, her act careens into full-on diva shtick after the awful scene where she browbeats Andrew for condescending to her, and she never recovers. The Guilt Trip's creators don't really want to question why their characters act the way they do, nor have them forge a meaningful new relationship. The Guilt Trip ultimately settles for a banal idea of happily ever after: a new beau for mom, a business deal for son, and eternal reruns on TBS in about nine months' time.