You can imagine the eureka moment: A studio vice president tells his minions that they’ve simply got to capture the three key demographics of 30-year-old stoners, over-40 gay males and sexagenarian moms. Just then, a younger studio executive jumps up from his chair and exclaims, “I’ve got it! We make a road-trip movie about a guy traveling from New Jersey to San Francisco with his overly affectionate, high-maintenance Jewish mother! And it’ll star Barbra Streisand and that lovable schlub from Knocked Up!” The VP begins weeping with joy. High fives are exchanged and designer water bottles are ceremoniously clinked together. Over in the corner, someone starts minting money.
Whether or not The Guilt Trip was conceived this way is, of course, debatable (palm-slapping may not have occurred). But Anne Fletcher’s familial farce leans on its simplistic premise and stunt casting so heavily that such market-research origins are plausible; you’d swear you were actually watching a 95-minute pitch for a mild cross-generational cringe comedy rather the film itself. Once Rogen’s aspiring entrepreneur invites Ma along for a coast-to-coast ride, every sitcomish beat is dutifully hit: She infantilizes him; he mumbles smart-ass comments; uncomfortable sexual situations offer Freudian minefields and beaucoup embarrassment (bring on the mom-and-son strip-club visit), if little comic payoff. What’s surprising is that Rogen and Streisand have a genuinely complementary chemistry, feeding off each other in a way that suggests that, given a halfway decent script, the two would make a better-than-decent screen duo. They should just develop an act and take that on the road.
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