The idea that Barbra Streisand might have given birth to Seth Rogen actually makes a twisted kind of biological sense, but it prompts one to wonder: Who on earth was the father? Zero Mostel? Fozzie Bear? Sadly, “The Guilt Trip” doesn’t speculate upon matters genetic. Whoever Dad was, he has been peacefully dead for years and Mama Streisand has been on High Noodge ever since.
The movie’s silly, predictable, and surprisingly sweet — the sort of thing you can and probably should take your mother to. Rogen plays Andrew, an organic chemist (not a doctor, but close!) who has invented a nontoxic cleaning product and is taking a road trip across the country to shill it to chain stores like Kmart and Costco. The product is called Sci-O-Clean, its packaging is more cluttered than Dr. Bronner’s, and Andrew has the showmanship of, well, an organic chemist.
But he tells his mom, Joyce (Streisand), that all is going well, because to admit defeat would be to invite her advice. Which she gives anyway, endlessly. The star knows from Jewish mothers and assorted yentas, even if the script carefully purges ethnicity from the proceedings so that no one out in Nebraska will be offended. Joyce’s last name is Brewster, for pity’s sake. If Streisand’s own mother knew, it’d kill her.
Don’t ask how, but the screenplay by Dan Fogelman (”Crazy, Stupid, Love.”) gets these two in a tiny car and out into the heartland, where bickering and mild comedy follow. “The Guilt Trip” largely avoids the crassness of the “Fockers” movies and the Apatow school — another reason your Nana will love it — but doesn’t replace it with much besides broad culture clashes and the sight of Streisand at her most relaxed. Joyce is meant to be a yammering pain, but the star simply has too much fun asking Rogen’s Andy if he “has to make,” or licking her hand and fixing his hair, or warning against hitchhikers because “they rape.” The movie’s halfway to a brilliant comedy of embarrassment, but director Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal”) doesn’t have the imagination or the nerve.
The best scenes in “The Guilt Trip” are also the weirdest, and they seem to happen by accident, like Joyce flirting with a handsome Marlboro Man (Brett Cullen) after eating a 4-pound steak on a bet. Rogen just stands by in slack-jawed awe for that one, and I can’t blame him. By the time the movie gets to journey’s end in San Francisco — and a possible rendezvous with an old flame of Joyce’s — you’ll either be along for the ride or begging for the mercy of a quick death. A small, sentimental, effective twist ending is just the coup de grace. “The Guilt Trip” is tripe, but it’s tripe that knows its audience. Seriously, take your mother. It’ll be a mitzvah.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.