THE GUILT TRIP
Directed by Anne Fletcher
Rated M, 95 minutes
Reviewer's rating: 3 and a half out of 5 stars
The opening scenes of The Guilt Trip are not exactly promising. Barbra Streisand looks as if she's junked the idea of delivering a performance in favour of serving up a sampler of bossy Jewish momma mannerisms.
Then she calms down, hints of a characterisation begin to emerge, and she and Knocked Up's Seth Rogen settle into some bickering and bantering that's both comical and realistic as they drive together across the US.
You can take the American road movie anywhere. In 1939, John Ford married it to the western in Stagecoach and sent it galloping across four states. And 30 years later, Easy Rider used it to take the moral temperature of the country from the point of view of a couple of pot-smoking mavericks on motorbikes. It's also been the vehicle for countless comedies about odd couples - which is where The Guilt Trip comes in.
I'm not sure that much box-office heft is gained from the cross-generational effect of co-starring Streisand with Rogen, best known for the array of slackers he's played in Judd Apatow movies and their derivatives. But here they are - together, for better or worse.
Dan Fogelman, who wrote the Steve Carell-Ryan Gosling comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love., has based this screenplay on a road trip he took with his own mother, Joyce, who grew up in Brooklyn as a fervent Streisand fan.
Streisand's Joyce is from New Jersey - she's a widow with a loyal band of women friends, a collection of ceramic frogs and a wardrobe of tracksuit tops tailored to her stay-at-home lifestyle.
Her son, Andy (Rogen), hasn't been home much since he left to go to college, finding the laser beam of her maternal attention too hard to withstand at close quarters. But he's in town on a business trip, so he's paying her a visit. Then he does something entirely out of character - prompted by her decision to tell him of her youthful romance with a man she's never forgotten.
At first, he recoils from this piece of information. No one wants to think of a parent as a sexual being. But, after a while, a long-dormant pang of guilt kicks in. After all, she's lonely, and if this man is out there somewhere and available, why shouldn't she know? After doing a bit of covert research, he learns that the man is living in San Francisco.
Without letting Joyce in on this discovery, he suggests that she accompany him on the rest of his business trip. Yes, he has misgivings, but he'll also earn points along the way from her belief that he actually wants to spend time with her.
Much of what follows covers familiar territory. She bombards him with unwanted but much-needed advice about marketing his new invention - an organic cleaning solution with drab packaging and a name nobody can remember. She interrogates him about his non-existent love life, and she insists that they save money by sharing a hotel room. But as they vie for control of the car's CD player - she's listening to a recording of Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex for her book club - the film gradually finds its rhythm.
It's directed by Anne Fletcher, who made the Sandra Bullock hit The Proposal, and she doesn't push the gags. Rogen is content to play the straight man, dialling down his teddy-bearish geniality to a gruff good-heartedness, and after her initial display of momma-isms, Streisand finds a groove that permits her to get in touch with Joyce's rarely visited sensitive side.
She can also be spotted listening when other cast members are speaking.
In fact, Joyce is so much more likeable than Streisand's other Jewish mother - the hippie, dippy version that she portrays at full bore in Jay Roach's Meet the Fockers series - that I can't quite understand why she warranted a bad-acting award in this year's Razzies, which are given to the worst that Hollywood has to offer.
Admittedly, Fogelman's anecdotal script works at a fitful pace, dependent on Joyce's habit of chatting to everybody who crosses her path. She also gets drunk one night in a bar full of ageing cowboys; and there's a second-act highlight in which she enters a steak-eating contest in Texas, demolishing a slab of meat the size of a coffee table.
But amid the raucousness are some neatly understated gags and a slow-growing sense that Joyce and her boy are beginning to relax in one another's company, plus a few sharp insights into the delicate business of looking behind the face of a parent or child to the identity of the adult within.