‘Guilt Trip’ turns the lights out on stardom

Barbra Streisand in The Guilt Trip.

Barbra Streisand in The Guilt Trip.

Doesn’t Barbra Streisand know she’s Barbra Streisand? In The Guilt Trip, an Oedipal comedy crossed with self-help primer, Streisand comes on all character-actressy. She plays Joyce, a widowed New Jersey hausfrau, Jewish mother to chemist Andy (Seth Rogen), who is desperate to sell his newly developed cleaning solvent to a manufacturer. Together they take a cross-country road trip with Andy’s secret aim of reconnecting his mother with an old flame.

Even during Streisand’s ’70s high point, she never essayed the decade’s vaunted road-movie genre. Here the genre devolves from panoply of American lifestyles to a stale mother/son reunion. Andy and Joyce go through the family terror of shared adulthood. Joyce isn’t so much overbearing as simply unbearable to a son who has avoided intimacy. Instead of updating the Momism of Portnoy’s Complaint, this is post-Philip Roth that turns Jewish guilt into all-American annoyance. It is fair to say that when Streisand—one of the great modern Jewish cultural figures (energetic, inventive and electrifying)—plays all-American, she is diminished.

Although The Guilt Trip is meant as a feel-good comedy, it doesn’t even have a Streisand theme song; nothing to coax one into the shame of shared embarrassment (like her mewling “The Way We Were”) or the excitement of exhilarating liberation (like her “You’re the Top” in What’s Up, Doc?). A non-singing Streisand cheats the public—unless she is expanding their range of perceptions as in the extraordinary neo-feminist comedy Up the Sandbox or the raucous and ribald The Owl and the Pussycat. In The Guilt Trip, a heavier, plain-faced Streisand pretends she’s a character actress just like she pretends auteurism in her self-directed maudlin dramas The Prince of Tides and The Mirror Has Two Faces. The drab sentimentality takes a pleasing turn at the end (though not like her 1976 recording of Rupert Holmes’ “Letters That Cross in the Mail”). Still, it’s as poor a miscalculation as Jane Fonda’s recent grandmotherly roles, especially in the atrocious Peace, Love and Misunderstanding. Fact is, neither Streisand nor Fonda can play ordinary women; they forget who they are. These crotchety roles neglect the excitement, drive and beauty that originally drew audiences to them.

Streisand doesn’t live up to this film’s title: the sense of overpowering competence that Carrie Fisher touched on in Postcards from the Edge—which was perfected in Albert Brooks’ 1997 Mother, a gentle comedy about a son discovering his mother’s independent identity. Debbie Reynolds (Fisher’s real-life mother) could submerge herself into that role, but Streisand merely turns the lights out on her dynamism. Her misjudged feminist solidarity allows director Anne Fletcher to photograph her in terribly drab, pale skin tones. (Go back to see Streisand’s realistic glow in Up the Sandbox or her first three big-budget Hollywood musicals which, as Pauline Kael recognized, had presented her “on a satin pillow.”)

This bland comedy does nothing for Rogen, who had developed a bold Jewish male identity in recent films. Oddly, he doesn’t challenge Streisand to fresh responses. Imagine what sparks Adam Sandler might have ignited with Streisand! Instead, of self-effacement, she might have reached new heights of ethnic self- definition–someone’s got to show Judd Apatow how it should be done. The Guilt Trip is mildly watchable but really just lame.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair.