Pairing Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen as a neurotic New Jersey mother-son odd couple, then sending the two on a road trip through Texas and the South, Anne Fletcher’s “The Guilt Trip” would seem to have uncovered some rarely tapped veins of Oedipal and culture-clash comedy. Yet the film scarcely bothers to mine them, making for a timid, modestly pleasant time-passer distinguished mostly by its unexplored potential. All the same, the attraction of seeing Streisand in her first non-“Fockers” role in more than a decade, as well as the general dearth of grandma-friendly comedies, should generate healthy holiday weekend business.
Dialing down his zaniness, if not his volume, Rogen plays Andy, a permanently flustered Los Angeles-based organic chemist who’s ready to launch his years-in-the-making invention, a cleaning product whose easily mispronounced name (Scioclean) poses the first of his many problems in pitching it to wholesalers. As a last-ditch marketing ploy, Andy plots a weeklong road trip to hawk his wares at company HQs across the country, starting with his hometown in New Jersey.
While there, he stops to visit his loquacious, long-widowed mother, Joyce (Streisand). Displaying all the general tendencies of a stereotypical Jewish mother with none of the cultural specifics, the overprotective, oversharing Joyce is allegedly responsible for Andy’s adult neuroses, though we rarely see her venture beyond typical motherly meddling. In any case, Andy whines through the visit until he’s about to head off, when he abruptly finds himself moved by his mother’s loneliness and revelations of a long-ago lost love, and invites her along for the journey.
Perhaps the biggest problem here is that “The Guilt Trip” is one of the most homebound road movies in recent memory, mostly alternating between motel rooms and cramped car seats, with little sense of forward momentum. When Dan Fogelman’s script does pause to build up a potential setpiece — dropping the twosome into a snowstorm, a steakhouse eating competition or Andy’s ex-girlfriend’s house — it tends to lose its nerve and simply moves on, never nudging its characters far enough past the borders of propriety to generate real laughs. In particular, to include a scene in which Streisand and Rogen are stranded at a strip club for hours, without even attempting a joke at its expense, should be a cinematic crime.
Helmer Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal,” “27 Dresses”) does achieve some genuine moments of warmth, and Streisand is consistently adorable in her tastefully dowdy duds, conveying the requisite amount of Babsiness without getting too fabulous for the character. Rogen, for his part, never quite finds the right rhythm for Andy, and often veers toward one-note irritation, although his disastrous pitch meetings eventually allow him the freedom to unleash his bellowing frustrations. (The film is chockablock with product placements, but these recurring pitch scenes provide some particularly canny, plot-friendly uses, allowing real-life companies — K-Mart, Orchard, Costco, et al. — to decline Andy’s invention by referencing the high standards of the many fine products they already offer. The shamelessness is almost admirable.)
A two-hander through and through, the pic carves out some moderate breathing room for Brett Cullen as a handsome Texan suitor and Kathy Najimy as a Jersey housewife, though most other characters are strictly relegated to scenery. Technical specs are all suitably professional, if never particularly distinguished.