Road trip movies are the ultimate copout. There’s usually no need for the screenwriter to waste a lot of time coming up with a plot because there’s a formula already in place. Take two bickering, disparate characters. Stick them in a car going cross-country for reasons that usually make little sense. Guide them through adventures in different states until they reach their destination and — inevitably — a greater understanding of each other.
The Guilt Trip follows this path dutifully but turns out to be something of a delight anyway. Its charm comes from stars Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen as a mother and son traveling from New Jersey to San Francisco, and if you think this an odd pairing, stop and think about it again and you may change your mind. Streisand, fresh off the horrors of Little Fockers, plays a doting mother to Rogen’s beleaguered adult son, who is smart enough to have a degree in organic chemistry but too emotionally confounded by his sweetly intrusive mom to realize that she’s not always wrong about everything.
The film, written by Dan Fogelman, who wrote last year’s hilarious Crazy Stupid Love, even offers up a plausible explanation for the trip: Andy (Rogen) has developed a safe, effective, organic cleaning product, and he’s scheduled meetings at companies across the country in order to pitch it (he’s too broke to fly). Spending a few days in Jersey with his widowed mom Joyce (Streisand) before he heads out, he learns that she may have an old flame in California. In a fit of guilt and genuine desire to see her happy, which he regrets almost immediately, he invites her along for the drive, hoping for a reunion when they reach their final destination.
Streisand is an old pro at comedy, of course, and Rogen is likewise gifted, and director Anne Fletcher — whose 27 Dresses is one of the most underrated romantic comedies of the past 10 years — wisely allows them room to improvise, so they truly sound like a boundaries-challenged mother and her exasperated son. Their chemistry fuels The Guilt Trip, which improves steadily as Joyce and Andy wind from Jersey to Tennessee to Texas.
By the time they reach the Lone Star State and Joyce accepts a restaurant’s challenge to eat what looks like a quarter of a cow in under an hour, you’re hooked on this odd couple. The humor is mostly gentle in nature; The Guilt Trip is clearly targeted at older audiences less than receptive to the crude jokes that made Rogen famous in movies like Knocked Up and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Even an unexpected stop at a strip club doesn’t yield much off-color humor.
But even if your taste in gags runs to Pineapple Express territory, you may find yourself invested in whether Andy finally recognizes his mother for what she is: A busybody, an over-sharer, someone to drive you absolutely crazy if she’s your mother but an impressive woman nonetheless. Want to impress your mom for the holidays? Treat her to The Guilt Trip — and avoid suffering through one of your own.
Cast: Barbra Streisand, Seth Rogen, Brett Cullen, Kathy Najimy.
Director: Anne Fletcher.
Screenwriter: Dan Fogelman.
Producers: Evan Goldberg, John Goldwyn, Lorne Michaels.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 95 minutes. Language, some risque material. Playing at area theaters.