In a month of long and ambitious movies, whether they're as impressive as the forthcoming Zero Dark Thirty or as dreary as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Guilt Trip distinguishes itself via modest ambitions. Anne Fletcher's two-handed comic melodrama aims no higher than a simple tale of a journey told with skilled lead performances and a sturdily familiar theme, and it just gets there. Just.
As a beleaguered son and worried mother driving across the US, Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand make light of familiar elements. Streisand's widowed Joyce is the epitome of the Jewish-American screen mum who simultaneously projects absolute optimism and irrational fears onto her child, and the burden is conveyed in Rogen's dulled exasperation as Andy.
It's obvious they've been this way for far too long, which adds to the feeling that the unthinkable has happened and someone signed off on Everybody Loves Raymond: The Movie. The sense of recognition grows with the shared journey, which stems from Andy, an organic chemist trying to sell a new cleaning product, trying to lure Joyce to San Francisco so he can reunite her with the first love she hasn't seen in 50 years.
The two stars have an easy dynamic and when the story doesn't shoehorn them into situations such as breaking down outside a strip club or Streisand getting tipsy in a cowboy bar, they bat the dialogue back and forth smartly. Neither lead tries to overshadow the other, and you're reminded that some of Streisand's best early roles - such as 1972's What's Up, Doc? - were comedies.
Screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love.) knows how to engineer an emotional payoff, but the film plays as if it's keen to remain inoffensive. The absence of gross-out humour and expletives is a welcome change, but there's also no comedic urgency or cultural framework - the out-takes in the closing credits suggest a looser film than the one about to finish.
As with The Impossible, the strength of a parent's bond with their child triumphs, and each learns from the other. But you have to wonder why Fletcher, who directed the box-office hit The Proposal in 2009, is chugging along with such modest material. A director in Hollywood whose film grossed more than $300 million would have his pick. Even Joyce could recognise that.
THE GUILT TRIP
Rated M, 95 minutes, opens Thursday
Stars: Barbra Streisand, Seth Rogen, Yvonne Strahovski, Adam Scott