If ever there was an example of a film mishandled in marketing, it’s The Guilt Trip. This picture is sold as a sort of Parental Guidance-level romp with a mother and son hitting the road, but it actually has more in common with Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz than it does with typical Hollywood slop. No, I’m not joking.
There are many reasons to think that The Guilt Trip would be less than stellar. The director is Anne Fletcher, who brought us such films as Step Up and 27 Dresses – not exactly a great track record. And the trailers put stars Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand at odds as a sort of predictable Meet the Parents-style family unit, complete with Babs’ sliding across several lanes of traffic while screaming obnoxiously.
Rogen is Andy Brewster, a scientist and inventor who thinks he’s got the ideal cleaning formula. He’s trying to sell it, but it’s not working out. He visits his mother Joyce (Streisand) and learns that she was in love with another boy when she first met Andy’s now-deceased father. The story floors him, so he sets out to find the man.
The discovery that the man his mother used to love passionately now lives in San Francisco causes Andy to reluctantly invite Joyce on a road trip across the country. Andy has to try to sell his product with his mother in tow, which sets aflame various family tensions. And when Joyce discovers that the real motivation of the trip is not as altruistic as she thought, those tensions threaten to boil over.
The bad news is that The Guilt Trip starts off poorly. It invests in the musical cues familiar to fans of light comedy, with string plucks and other tonal clues announcing what the audience is supposed to feel. This approach seems to lessen as the picture gains momentum, eventually diminishing to more subtle choices.
The Guilt Trip works because it makes a series of unorthodox choices and stands by them. Rogen is the straight man to Streisand’s wilder character. She eats the giant steak, while he calmly and supportively watches. She engages in the film’s chief but not overbearing romantic entanglement, while he sinks his teeth into his professional pursuits.
Rogen puts the role over stupendously. His chemistry with Streisand is subtle, sometimes overly so. They communicate frequently by exchanging looks, like during the film’s climactic discovery, and the supposedly obnoxious arguments are actually leavened by his character’s overall decency. His digs are of the more removed and sarcastic variety; the overt comedy promised in the trailer is minimal.
There is also a surprising amount of pure drama involved in The Guilt Trip, which once again speaks to the problem of marketing. Few would anticipate that one of the movie’s many hotel room scenes would involve a tense and terse shouting match, capped off with Streisand shouting “Drink your fucking water before you die of dehydration” before storming out to get drunk at the bar.
Yet here we are. The Guilt Trip possesses a darker edge and there’s a lot going on. Much of it is revealed in the softly heartbroken glances offered up by Streisand. This offsets her more obvious flavouring, which borders on stereotype. When she chastises her son for his language early in the picture, the explosiveness of her calling him a “condescending little shit” later on is profound.
There are lots of little details that display more of the relationship between mother and son. When Joyce announces that she’s been looking for someone who’ll let her eat M&Ms in bed (because Andy’s father didn’t), her son misreads this as being about the munching of candy at late hours. His dismissal is reflective of so many things and his missing of larger truth is useful.
I don’t believe this movie has been treated fairly, but that’s really a matter of expectations meeting reality. The Guilt Trip has been mishandled by the marketing department. Rogen and Streisand make for a great pair, but their presence also conjures up expectations from an audience looking for Knocked Up rather than Take This Waltz. My advice: open your mind and give Fletcher’s movie a chance.