The stereotype of the Jewish mother is probably one of the few stereotypes you can still throw out there without a single person shouting foul. This is because, unlike other stereotypes where exceptions can be found easily left and right, the Jewish mother stereotype is 100 percent correct all of the time. This can obviously make for some comic gold.
The road trip film is a classic staple in American cinema, even if less and less of us are actually taking road trips anymore and driving through the heartland of America is really something that's a bit dated. It gives a film the perfect excuse to trap a group of people together in crazy and ever changing situations. This can obviously make for some comic gold.
One would think that putting the two together would thus make for some comic gold. Yes, one would think that.
The Guilt Trip
One would be wrong. If anything The Guilt Trip, a film that combines Jewish mother comedy and road trip comedy, is only comic "thanks for participating." A movie that's only true achievement is that it remains palatable instead of veering off into comic "KILL IT BEFORE IT DESTROYS ALL OF FUNNY THINGS!" Thankfully things don't get that bad, and the movie actually makes some smart decisions here and there. Never enough to pull itself up to the level of anything special, but enough to keep you from hating it outright.
The aforementioned Jewish mother is Joyce Brewster (Barbara Streisand). Her forever tormented son, Andrew (Seth Rogen) comes to visit right before he's about to embark on a road trip across the country to sell a cleaning product he's invented. While at home he finds out that his mother named him after a man she fell in love with before she met his father, he looks her up and decides that in order to have her fall in love again he'll invite her on the road trip despite the fact that he seemingly can't stand her. There's a lot of poorly done character motivation throughout the film, but the upshot of the whole thing is that a grown man is stuck in a car for an extended period of time with his Jewish mother.
Of course the casting of Barbara Streisand as the stereotypical Jewish mother couldn't be any more perfect, but for the first quarter of the movie it's pretty worrying. Streisand plays the role to the hilt and by the time the plot gets going you're definitely tired of the stereotype about five times over. Surprisingly the film is actually smart enough to veer away from the stereotype as the film progresses unfolding Joyce into a more complex character and ditching many of the really annoying bits. It completely saves the film from being quite possibly the most annoying movie of the year. Instead it can roll along in its mediocrity.
Props should not really be given for a movie being able to not suck. While that may seem impressive since many movies do suck, sucking really shouldn't be the bar that a film is trying to climb over so despite my previous statements I want to stress that this is still a bland film. Laughs are trumped up throughout, but they're never really funny, and the story behind the comedy is seriously flawed. Whenever the film isn't being funny (aside from one admittedly impressive scene) it doesn't work or is too cliche to enjoy. In a strange twist the emotional scenes that keep Streisand's character from ruining film are also the scenes that work the least. There's just not much going on beyond the mother/son relationship to keep the film going.
Rogen and Streisand are hit and miss together as well. Their car banter, which sounds like a lot of it was improv, is quite funny. In fact once Streisand gets in the car and stops acting like a Jewish mother and instead is a Jewish mother her dialog hits some great points and Rogen stays right in step with her. However, the comedy outside of this is at it's best only smirk worthy and and its worst eye-rollingly bad. Rogen and Streisand also seem on different pages for a lot of the dramatic scenes, especially the aforementioned impressive scene, which stumbles not from their individual performances, but because they seem like they weren't even on set with each other at times.
The story, which eventually ends in a mother/son love-fest and redemption for both, is downright odd at times and often races over issues in order to get to more car comedy. If it had paced itself a bit better there could have been some actual drama to the film, but instead the road trip mentality takes over and we're rushed from one set piece to another. There's really nothing compelling keeping the story together as a whole, and even Andrew's victory at the end feels like something anyone would have done somewhere near the beginning. It's one of those stories that would only happen in the movies, but in this case it involves a Jewish mother instead of an international action hero.
The good news is that The Guilt Trip is far more than it really deserves to be. The bad news is that far more is still a pretty crummy movie. At least it has the decency to end itself in a timely manner unlike another comedy opening this week.