LOS ANGELES — Yentl goes yenta in The Guilt Trip, a creakily old-fashioned comedy that forgot to pack the laughs along with the nudging and kvetching. Possibly the first American film in decades in which characters drive cross-country courtesy of process shots out the back window, this mother-son yakfest blows a gasket and four tires before it hits the road.
When was the last time an overbearing Jewish mother giving her schlemiel of a son a hard time about not being married was a major component of a big Hollywood film? To behold Barbra Streisand's New York mom Joyce Brewster hectoring her homely visiting son Andrew (Seth Rogen) about his myriad personal shortcomings is to revisit a musty mindset the minor updates in Dan Fogelman's woeful script can't begin to freshen up.
The early scenes of Andrew's return from California to his childhood home are so embarrassing you wonder if such impressive consistency can possibly be sustained. Andrew knows what he's in for, but that still doesn't help when Mom immediately starts in asking what happened to former girlfriends X, Y and Z, complaining that he went to UCLA just to get as far away from her as possible, pointing out that she hasn't had a date since her husband's long-ago death and then recommending that Andrew get therapy. Enough, already.
In an effort to connect with Andrew, Joyce unloads what she considers a bombshell: She actually had a boyfriend before she met her husband and loved him so much she named her only son after him. Considering it odd she never tried to look him up after his dad died, Andrew does research that reveals he's an executive in San Francisco. With an ulterior motive in mind, he invites Mom to join him on a drive across the country, during which he'll make stops in Virginia, Texas, Santa Fe and Las Vegas to hawk to potential retailers a nontoxic cleansing liquid product.
To save a few bucks, she insists they rent a compact rather than an SUV, forcing them to share very close quarters as they listen to Jeffrey Eugenides' gender-bending Middlesex on CD. The way Joyce gets excited about gift shops and free continental breakfasts at motels (where she insists they stay in one room to save more money), you'd think she'd never been out of New York.
In terms of viewer relief from the haranguing, getting on the road held out the hope of changing scenery and a possible parade of lively supporting roles, but no. They do get out of the car to look at the Grand Canyon but after about five seconds decide they've seen enough and move on to Vegas, which Joyce actually likes.
The one stop that at least yields something different is at a Texas steakhouse, where anyone who can eat a 4 1/2-pound steak and all the trimmings in one hour gets it for free. Uncharacteristically, Joyce volunteers and wins an admirer in the form of a handsome older gent (Brett Cullen) who'd like to have her come up and see him sometime.
The climactic visit to San Francisco predictably plays on and aims to stimulate bittersweet emotions. At the same time, the easy-to-get point is to stress that the mother and son's prolonged time together has forced them to break through their various barriers, grudges and expectations to arrive at a more honest satisfying relationship. Yep, that'll do the trick every time.
The Guilt Trip provides heavy competition with director Anne Fletcher's previous films (Step Up, 27 Dresses, The Proposal) as to which is the most formulaic and conventional, but this one takes the cake for being the most visually unimaginative and clunky.
What: The Guilt Trip
Starring: Seth Rogen, Barbra Streisand
Directed by: Anne Fletcher
Running time: 95 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for language, risque material