Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Guilt Trip

Director: Anne Fletcher
Starring: Barbra Streisand, Seth Rogen, Brett Cullen, Adam Scott, Ari Graynor, Colin Hanks, Yvonne Strahovski, Casey Wilson 
Running Time: 95 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Some casting choices just make perfect sense. Barbra Streisand playing Seth Rogen's overbearing mother is one of them, and in the unfairly overlooked The Guilt Trip, the actual execution of it is even better. Unfortunately, the very reason it works is probably why it was so casually dismissed by critics and audiences. Both are talented, likable performers and yet it's still strangely difficult to imagine theses two starring in a creatively successful project together, isn't it? For whatever reason, a perception persists that Rogen's always just playing variations on his stoner persona and that Streisand's merely a singer/celebrity occasionally starring in bad comedies every few years. It's a shame if that kept audiences away because they're both given as good an opportunity here as they've had to disprove it in a well-written movie that's smart, funny and even occasionally touching. This isn't necessarily a 90 minute laugh fest but it gets the job done in ways more ambitious comedies haven't by just simply telling an enjoyable story well. The smile never really left my face the whole time, as everything falls nicely into place with better than expected results. 

Rogen plays Andy Brewster, who's embarking on a cross-country road trip to try to sell his new safe and environmentally friendly cleaning product, Scio-Clean, to retailers in an effort to jump start his sagging career. Before he leaves, he's nagged via voicemail by his well-meaning widowed mother Joyce (Streisand) about everything from his lack of a love life to his diet. But after hearing a story about how a lost teenage love slipped away one summer before she met his dad, Andy plans to secretly track the mystery man down and attempts to stage a surprise reunion in San Francisco. With the hope of enticing some big chain stores in his product and filling a void in his mom's life, he takes her along for his trip, where some suppressed family baggage and a few secrets are dredged up for both.  Arguing non-stop, Andy and Joyce will have to reach some kind of middle ground in understanding one another if they each want to get what they're looking for out of this journey.

The movie makes a number of smart choices that are almost bound to overlooked because of how simple and entirely predictable the premise appears to be from the onset. What is a complete surprise is just how funny it is. There's actually very little gross-out humor, with most of the laughs coming from the fact that Andy can't stand his overbearing mother and is mostly trying to set her up with this guy to get her out of his life. What makes this a bit sad is that his situation might actually be far worse than hers and director Anne Fletcher and screenwriter Dan Fogelman do a commendable job balancing that notion with many of the lighter, relatable moments in the mother-son dynamic. You'd figure that watching this guy constantly arguing with his mom would get tiresome after a while, but it doesn't, mostly because the co-stars work so well together and there are actually more than a few welcome surprises. The first of which comes in the film's handling of Andy's cleaning product. The writing's really smart here because while his presentations are painfully bad, but they fail the way most horrible pitches would in reality, as he continuously bores prospective buyers to tears with scientific and technical jargon. And when Joyce chimes in with her unsolicited tips on how he can improve it (like changing it's horrible name), it's actually common sense advice that seems like it's coming from a sane, intelligent person instead of a comedy caricature. But we also understand why Andy's stubborn pride and insecurity get in the way of him taking it.

That the filmmakers feels no need to shoehorn in a love interest for Andy comes as a relief. In fact, he and his mom's encounter with his high school sweetheart (Yvonne Strahovski) and her husband (Colin Hanks) is handled pretty well, as is a sub-plot involving a potential cowboy suitor (a terrific Brett Cullen) for Joyce during an entertaining steak eating contest. Yes, Barbra Streisand competes in a steak eating contest. All of this should be standard hit-or-miss comedy fare but together Rogen and Streisand are able to elevate it. Of course, the time will eventually come when Joyce discovers the true intention of Andy taking her on this trip and, without giving away too much, I liked how the movie gives these two the ending we want them to have but doesn't do it in an obviously schmaltzy way. Both get exactly what they're looking for, just not how they expected to find it. There's also a great cameo from Adam Scott that's a lot more dramatic than you'd expect given the circumstances.

Rogen is reliably gold at playing a schlubby man-boy who has to grow up, but this is one of the smarter projects he's done it in. When the material is good it's sometimes easy to overlook just how welcome a presence he is on screen. In the hands of another actor it's easy to imagine Andy coming off as a crude sociopath, which obviously wouldn't have been right for this. But it's his chemistry with Streisand that really brings out the best in both, as the legendary entertainer is really on point here, turning in a charmingly comedic performance. It's just the right vehicle for her and she doesn't disappoint, making Joyce just annoying and overbearing enough, but not so annoying that she crosses into the realm of crass unlikablity. In all the nagging, she subtly makes sure we can tell Joyce's intentions are genuine and that's a big difference maker in what kind of movie this becomes. I don't even know what to say about the fact that Streisand received a Worst Actress Razzie nomination for this other than it's mean and disgusting, with its only possible motivation being to stick it to a big star. That's not funny at all. It's just cruel, and maybe even a bit irresponsible when you take into account the current state of the movie industry. Although, it's important to remember that we're talking about an "organization" that once nominated Stanley Kubrick for worst director so it's difficult to take anything they do seriously. The truth is that if Streisand was nominated for a supporting Globe or Oscar for this performance, few would have reason to complain. She's that good.

Much like the fictitious cleaning product at the movie's center, The Guilt Trip's bad title and poor marketing kept the public away from something that's actually very good. Once they saw the commercials they thought they saw the entire movie. And who can blame them?  In begging for laughs, most mainstream comedies these days reach for the lowest common denominator so it was almost inevitable that a funny, heartwarming story that the entire family can enjoy would fall through the cracks. But here's something even sadder: It's not even that great. It simply does what it needs to  do while keeping a consistent tone. We used to get comedies like this all the time. Now they're practically an endangered species. Or maybe I've just seen too many bad ones. Either way, critics should partially shoulder the blame, as all of them somehow found a way to get on the same page with this and still be completely wrong. Luckily, it doesn't happen often. The best thing to do going into The Guilt Trip is forget everything you've heard or read and just approach it with an open mind.                        

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