When Joyce Brewster (Barbra Streisand) and her son Andy (Seth Rogen) set off on an East-West cross country road trip—he to shill the awkwardly named all-natural cleaning product he invented, she to fuss over his dietary and sartorial needs—the first thing she does is put a book on tape in the car’s player. A melodious male voice fills the car (“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”) It’s Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. Andy’s eyes opened wide in surprise and so did mine; I would have taken Joyce for more of an Anita Shreve type.
The Guilt Trip is not what I expected either. Directed by Anne Fletcher (The Proposal) from a screenplay by Dan Fogelman, it deals in stereotypes—overbearing Jewish mother, nebbishy son steadily mortified by her—but without the broad, frenetic, desperate comedy of say, Streisand’s most recent ventures into cinema, the lame Meet the Fockers and the truly horrible Little Fockers. It’s a mainstream film but these stock characters are humanized and given a low key, refreshingly reasonable mission: to know and respect each other a little better. Charming and thoughtful, The Guilt Trip is essentially a two-person play, acted by two performers who hail from different worlds—Rogen from pothead humor central, she from diva city—yet who have natural, relaxed chemistry together. They could be related. I’m not sure if Rogen’s Pineapple Express fan base will rush to see it, but if they do, I bet they call their mothers afterward. Regardless, for Streisand, who turned 70 this year and hasn’t taken a lead role in a film since 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces, The Guilt Trip is a smart venture back into theaters.
(READ: About Joel Stein’s (short) road trip with Barbra Streisand)
The Guilt Trip works because we all know and like a Joyce Brewster (or dozens of them). Joyce has a big personality but she’s not a cartoon; if anyone is going to make jokes about Jewish mothers, it will be her. She is an outspoken, self-aware woman of a certain age who has discovered the miraculous comfort of track suits. She uses something called a purse hook, which hangs off tables, thereby preventing her purse from touching any dirty floors. She spends a lot of time at The Gap. Her community of friends is built around Weight Watchers. But mostly, she lives for her son—3,000 miles away in Los Angeles but still her focus.
Which is obviously problematic. Andy’s dad died when he was 8, and Joyce hasn’t dated since then. She tells her son she has grown used to the pleasures of solitude. (In the opening scene of the film, Streisand wakes in her rumpled bed, rolls over on one of the previous night’s peanut M&Ms and eats it. It’s a funny little thrill seeing Streisand, this consummate protector of her own image, doing something so very common woman. I felt like I was glimpsing the Pope cleaning his cat’s litter box.) At a meeting of the Montclair Mature Singles Club, Joyce can be overheard saying impatiently—to a perfectly pleasant looking gentleman—“No I don’t hike! Try the skinny one in the corner.”
Mother and son have no plans to travel together initially. Andy comes East to meet with Kmart representatives, to see if they’ll place an order for Scieoclean, the nontoxic cleaner he dreamed up while working for the EPA. But he’s too self-conscious to make a good salesman, unlike his mother, who can talk to anyone. He’d never dream of asking her to help him on the road (he’s got stops planned at major corporations all across the country). But he gets the idea to bring her along after she tells him about the guy who got away just before she married his dad, the man she would have happily married if he’d asked, whose name she actually passed on to him, her only child. Touched, Andy does something his mother has never done; searches for the man online. Fogelman, who also wrote Crazy, Stupid, Love and Cars, makes a point of how easy this is in our hyper-connected society—it only takes Andy one phone call to find out Joyce’s other Andy lives in San Francisco. Without telling her why, he asks Joyce to join him on the trip.
They have a few adventures along the way, some predictable embarrassment at a strip club and a scene where Joyce takes on a restaurant’s challenge of eating a 50 oz. steak to get her meal for free. “That’s like eating a poodle,” Rogen says, his level, quiet delivery just right. But it’s all pretty mild stuff. That’s because Fogelman’s screenplay—which was inspired by a road trip he took with his mother, who the film is dedicated to—isn’t aimed at raucous laughs. The movie is funny, but it’s main goal is to get mother and son to reconsider each other as individuals. For Joyce, that means letting go of her little boy with potential (“Remember how good you were in Man of La Mancha?”) and seeing who he is now. For Andy, the challenge is bigger; he’s supposed to be in his late 20s (Rogen himself turned 30 this year), but he’s got a case of arrested development and is nearly as embarrassed by his mother as a teenager might be. Here’s the realism of The Guilt Trip—he has no compunction about letting her know that. The movie’s success is completely dependent on their eventual showdown, which I won’t spoil, except to say that Streisand kills it, with dignity. The funny lady is back. If she wants to be. With Streisand, you never know when she might decide to direct, have another comeback tour, take a part in a movie. Or just stay home.