Pleasant Surprise, by Rita Cannon
In The Guilt Trip, Seth Rogen plays Andy Brewster, a chemist-turned-inventor who’s struggling to get his line of organic cleaning products distributed. About to set off a cross-country series of pitch meetings, he drops in for a visit with his mother Joyce (Barbra Streisand), who has lived alone, attending book clubs and eating candy in bed, since Andy’s father died almost twenty years ago. That night, Joyce tells Andy about a man she had a relationship with before she met his father. Andy, in a weird move that almost no one outside of a movie would pull, tracks down the guy down and learns that he’s single and living in San Francisco, which is conveniently at the end of his planned trip. He then invites his mother to accompany him on the trip, but keeps the information about her former flame to himself, claiming he just wants to spend some time with her. As laborious as these plot contrivances sound (and they are), the true focus of the film is the chemistry between Rogen and Streisand, which is thoroughly enjoyable.
Whether or not you believe that Andy and Joyce would actually do everything the script requires of them, their relationship as mother and son is fully realized, believable, and kind of delightful. Streisand’s irrepressible exuberance is a good match with Rogen’s reticent, self-effacing sarcasm. Joyce frequently embarrasses and sometimes smothers Andy with her affection and concern for him, but it’s obviously that he loves her deeply and wants her to be happy. A host of hilarious people – including Casey Wilson, Adam Scott, Kathy Najimy, and Nora Dunn – populate the margins of the movie in small supporting roles, but the focus stays firmly on Joyce and Andy’s relationship.
All in all, The Guilt Trip is less notable for what it does right than for what it could have done wrong, but shrewdly avoids. It could have been meaner, making Joyce into an overbearing gargoyle and reveling in Andy’s nebbishy humiliations, but it’s refreshingly generous to both characters. My worst fear going in was that it would be a horror show of incest and gross-out elder sex jokes, but it’s not that, either. Joyce and Andy are mistaken for a May-December couple only once, and that icky moment passes quickly; furthermore, the idea that Joyce is an interesting, attractive woman deserving of a romantic life is taken for granted and never ridiculed.
Nothing about The Guilt Trip is ground-breaking or excellent. It’s a straight-down-the-middle, blatantly commercial film that doesn’t challenge the viewer in any way. But it’s also warm, kind-hearted, and refreshingly uncynical. Yes, it’s fluff, but the fact that it doesn’t seem openly contemptuous of its audience or its characters puts it ahead of a lot of the other fluff in theaters lately. I’d rather see ten movies like this than sit through any romantic comedy starring Gerard Butler even once.
So basically, if you’re visiting family for the holidays and your mom wants to see Playing For Keeps, convince her to see The Guilt Trip instead. I realize that “better than Playing For Keeps” will sound like faint praise to some people, and I guess it is. But if The Guilt Trip‘s greatest achievement is giving people something better to watch with their moms than another Gerard Butler movie, that’s still enough to make me feel grateful it exists.