It’s a testament to Barbra Streisand’s newfound humility that in the family road comedy The Guilt Trip, she allows herself to be cast as the endearingly irritating mother of a geeky, middle-aged Jewish man, instead of his slightly older but still alluring girlfriend. Though intermittently bathed in a halo of golden light and desired by at least one handsome, distinguished older man with a thing for mature women with healthy appetites, Streisand in The Guilt Trip is largely devoid of her famous vanity and narcissism. Her performance captures how parents are often annoying to their grown progeny because of their good intentions, not in spite of them: If they didn’t want the best for the children they so selflessly raised, they wouldn’t be such goddamned persistent pests.
Rogen, who co-executive-produced with Streisand, stars as a struggling scientist and inventor who heads out on the road with his long-widowed mother, trying to sell a poorly packaged and named natural cleaning product of his own design to chain stores and home-shopping networks. Rogen has an ulterior motive for taking Streisand on the trip: He wants to play matchmaker between his mother, who has been single since Rogen’s father died, and her first love, whom she lost contact with ages ago, but still thinks about.
The Guilt Trip is casually astute and clever about the way even sane, responsible adults revert back to being prickly children when confronted with the gale-force wind of a parent’s intense, misguided attention. But while Streisand and Rogen’s relationship is smartly, affectionately drawn, just about every other element of the movie feels perfunctory, from the hooey about Streisand’s lost love to the flat, uninspired direction of 27 Dresses/The Proposal helmer Anne Fletcher. The film’s end credits feature Rogen and Streisand riffing off each other in ostensibly improvised outtakes that are far funnier and livelier than anything in the movie, hinting at the better comedy that might have ensued had the filmmakers trusted their leads’ chemistry and chops more, rather than watering them down with schmaltz and shtick, wacky eating contests, contrived plotting, and a horribly hokey happy ending.