Once comic actors reach a particular career stage, they often choose one of two paths: A) They stop being funny and start being all Hallmark heartwarming, i.e., by growing a beard and playing a psychiatrist. B) They accept unambitious, work-for-hire roles in mass-market family comedies about some combination of dogs, weddings, road trips, Christmas, or babies. This is often a prelude to cover features in Modern Maturity, so it’s weird to see young Seth Rogen in such a broadly targeted family movie.
In Anne Fletcher’s buddy comedy The Guilt Trip, Rogen is Andy Brewster, an organic chemist frustrated in his entrepreneurial efforts at selling the natural cleaning product he has invented. He comes home to New Jersey to visit his widowed mother, Joyce, played by Barbra Streisand. After she tells her son about a sweetheart with whom she’d broken up to marry Andy’s father, he Googles—wait, actually, GoogleBings, which is weird—the guy’s name and finds his address in San Francisco. About to embark on a multicity sales jaunt, he invites his mom along, ostensibly to spend time with her, but with the hidden agenda of hooking her up with the old boyfriend.
Pairing Rogen and Streisand turns out to be inspired. The wisp of a plot serves as a platform for some strong comic dynamics, the only semi-important thing the film has to offer, other than a message of environmentally safe cleaning products and a huge shout-out to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. For an internationally famous doyenne who lives at a magnificent and heightened level of existence involving ambient harp glissandos and lilac fragrance, Streisand offers a spot-on portrayal of a retired, middle-class Gap aficionado. Andy’s multiple agendas and his own internal resistance to the fact that he kind of wants his mom’s help challenges his affable schlubbiness. Rogen and Streisand clearly like each other, judging by the improvisational chemistry of their relationship, and their exchanges have the quarrelsome affection of long acquaintance.
The tight focus on the characters yields a narrative gentleness that’s only surprising in a landscape of emphatic gross-out comedies, some of which Rogen has written himself. The Guilt Trip tees up scenes involving an eating contest, a strip club, and a casino, which in an overdetermined, situational film would have resulted in projectile vomiting, an embarrassing lap dance, and hitting the big jackpot, respectively. At each turn, Dan Fogelman’s script instead veers back to the filial relationship and the complications therein.
If you do the math and assume that Joyce the character is the same age as Streisand, then she gave birth to Andy at age 40, which means he dodged the whole chromosome-abnormality bullet for which women of advanced maternal age are at risk. Viewers prone to intrusive thoughts and the obsessive need to mentally justify every incongruity in a film can consider the broader societal trend toward older parenthood and also that Streisand looks pretty great for her age, anyway. Plus, acting! If that doesn’t help, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders contains helpful prescribing regimens that might alleviate your symptoms.