In “The Guilt Trip,” which features Barbra Streisand’s first starring performance in more than 15 years, the definitive diva plays a lighthearted version of a stereotypical Jewish mother, eating candy in bed and endlessly doting on her only son, played by Seth Rogen.
He is an aspiring inventor who has lined up a series of meetings across the country to try to sell his nontoxic household cleaner to box stores and other major retailers. Circumstance and a little affectionate subterfuge on his part lead him to invite her along.
Screenwriter Dan Fogelman’s script for last year’s “Crazy Stupid Love” ably pulled together a comedy of contemporary living with only-in-the-movies exaggerations, yet here he achieves no such balance: “The Guilt Trip” has little basis in reality — cultural, familial or otherwise. There is something promising about the match-up of an old-school show-biz kid such as Streisand with the modern, anxiously self-aware Rogen, but what could have been the multigenerational Thunderdome of Jewish Humor instead turns out bloodlessly disappointing.
It’s hard to believe that Streisand came back to a leading role after supporting parts in the last two “Fockers” movies so that she could participate in an agonizingly long and unfunny scene in which her character powers through a 50-ounce steak dinner so she can get it for free. (Because, you know, she loves a bargain, etc.) A late story twist exists only to give Streisand a chance to go momentarily self-serious and verklempt.
One could perhaps charitably remark that Streisand has a naturally at-ease screen presence at this point in her storied career (she’s 70), yet the reality of her performance seems to be that she barely showed up. Say what you will about her mugging turns in 1970s comedies such as “The Owl and the Pussycat” and “What’s Up, Doc?” — at least she was making an effort. This leaves Rogen straining harder than Anne Hathaway hosting the Oscars to keep things afloat; notably, Rogen’s biggest laughs come in moments without Streisand. Other capable talents such as Casey Wilson, Adam Scott and Ari Graynor have barely five minutes of screen time between them, unable to offer real support.
Directed by Anne Fletcher, “The Guilt Trip” not only feels fake but looks it too, sets appearing unabashedly as sets. One of the few points of interest in the film is trying to decide which car scenes were done with a towing rig and which were green-screen process shots. Just as one would on a long car ride, during “The Guilt Trip,” you look for excitement where you can.