(warning: this review contains mild spoilers)
The Guilt Trip didn’t hold much promise when it was released in Australia recently. A critical and commercial flop in America and one of the co-leads was an actor (Seth Rogen) who’d I never really rated. But it was still of interest to me as it also co-starred Barbra Streisand in a fairly rare screen appearance. As I wrote in my recent review of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ in her early films at least she displayed a genuine talent for flair and comic timing. I was curious to see several decades later whether she still displayed this talent.
The story concerns a struggling inventor in his mid-30s (Seth Rogen) who has created a potentially wondrous cleaning product. But as we see from the opening scene, he’s a lousy salesman of it. He has a somewhat strained relationship with his well-meaning but interfering mother (Barbra Streisand) but when he locates a man she loved but hasn’t seen for decades, he decides to take her on a road trip where he hopes to finally sell his product, as well as help her meet her lost love.
One of the most interesting aspects of TGR is how the relative lack of raunchy language, shock humour and toilet gags – which are prevalent in so many mainstream comedies these days – give it a relatively old-fashioned feel. It’s feels like a film that was made in the early 1990s more than the present.
This is not a negative observation; in fact the relative lack of crude humour is quite refreshing and gives TGT a genial feel.
But while there is absence of low-brow content in TGT, what is in its place? As it turns out, not much. While the film is setup for some funny situations and good mother/son character conflict, very little of note occurs. While TGT is easy to take, its geniality borders on the bland at times.
And this perhaps provides a clue as to why so many film comedies rely so excessively on raunchy humour these days – the art of comic timing, genuinely witty lines and funny situations has declined so rapidly in films in the last few decades that crudeness and vulgarity are all many filmmakers have to fall back on.
And this trend is also reflected at an individual level with the performance of Seth Rogen as the son. Rogen is someone I’ve never really rated as an actor (notwithstanding a good ‘serious’ performance in ‘Take This Waltz’); he’s always seemed to me someone who relies on lazily having something confrontational and shocking to say in his fast-paced verbal style for laughs, instead of the harder work of developing comic timing or amusing characterisation.
And this is fully illustrated in TGT. Saddled with material that has very little low-brow content, he is all at sea creating anything of interest, let alone humour. For most of the film he is boringly one-note in his sulky persona, and he is unable to convince when his character suddenly changes to a more positive outlook in the film’s latter stages. As a result, Rogen’s character is much less sympathetic than the film probably intends.
But what about Streisand? While she has thin material to work with, the spark and talent she showed at the start of her career is still on display here. She is far more entertaining than her co-star and the mild amusement the film generates is largely through her work. And during a serious confrontation scene halfway through the film she shows she has the dramatic skill to make the scene work.
Apart from Streisand’s enjoyable performance, the best that can be said about the TGT is that it’s fairly easy to take and has some nice moments here and there; the concluding scene where the mother meets a person she loved for the first time in decades (or does she?) is tactfully done.
But overall there isn’t enough in TGT to recommend it. It’s too slight and bland and a week or so after seeing it, it’s largely faded from the memory. It’s a bit of an inditement on the standard of modern comedies that this puts it above a lot of other comedies I see at the cinema.