By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette — Although violence aficionado Quentin Tarantino may disagree, the Christmas season is usually a time for light-hearted fare at movie theaters.
Two new comedies strain their collective talent while trying to make you laugh. “The Guilt Trip” features Barbra Streisand, who clearly doesn’t need the work. And “This Is 40” is yet another venture into the toilet bowl from writer-director Judd Apatow.
Ironically, it was 40 years ago that Streisand was lighting up the screen in such hilarious comedies as “The Owl And The Pussycat” and “What’s Up, Doc?” Living the high-life in Malibu, and publishing an extravagant book about it, has appealed to her much more than making films. After directing and starring in “The Mirror Has Two Faces” in 1996, she did return to movies for “Meet The Fockers” in 2004 and “Little Fockers” in 2010. Overall, Streisand has made only 20 films in an acting career spanning 44 years.
Her being back on screen in “The Guilt Trip,” may be a joyous occasion for her fans, but it might have been joyous for everyone if the vehicle she had chosen were better. In this lackluster movie, which is lazily directed by Anne Fletcher and unimpressively written by Dan Fogelman, Streisand plays Joyce Brewster, a meddlesome mother with a secret she needs to share and a laggard son who shows some promise. The son, Andrew, is weakly played by Seth Rogen, who tries to tone down his stoner comedy image and actually create a flesh-and-blood character. He fails in the face of the juggernaut that is Streisand.
The story is simple. Andrew has invented what he believes is the perfect, environmentally friendly cleaning product. He wants to sell it to stores across the United States. The widowed Joyce tags along for a cross-country ride that is supposed to end up in San Francisco, where Andrew hopes she will hopefully rediscover a fellow from her past, the secret of whose existence she finally shares with her son.
The journey to northern California takes absurd side trips, meandering from New Jersey to Tennessee to Texas and the, by now, tiresome arena of Las Vegas. This tells you all you need to know as to why the movie fails. Who drives from coast-to-coast that way? No one except inept filmmakers hoping to score comic points with assembly line scenes that are, unfortunately, riddled with cliches and stereotypes. Oversize meals and car trouble? Is that the best Fletcher and Fogelman could do?
Joyce is the classic nitpicker; a kvetching, albeit oblivious, annoyance to all around her. She enjoys her son’s company and blithely doesn’t seem to care that she makes him uncomfortable. Andrew is always embarrassed and feels guilty about almost everything she does. Rogen doing his “aw-shucks, aw-mom routine” is painful to watch. Movie mothers are supposed to be cute (except Carrie White’s and Norman Bates’s, of course), and the fact that it’s Streisand controlling every moment and chewing the scenery is fun, but only for a while. Tedium eventually sets in.
“The Guilt Trip” is propelled by the force of Streisand’s personality, but she alone can’t deliver the faulty comedy to its intended destination. This is truly a bumpy ride.
The excruciatingly awful “This Is 40” features more members of the Apatow family than any moviegoer should be compelled to endure. In addition to producer-director-screenwriter Judd, there’s his wife, the alleged actress Leslie Mann, as well as their two real-life daughters, Maude and Iris.
The pathetic film takes two lesser characters from Apatow’s “Knocked Up” and tries to package an entire movie around them. It doesn’t work. There’s a reason they were originally lesser characters. There’s not much meat on their comedic bones; therefore, strained situations have to be invented in an attempt to make them relatable to audiences.
At age 40, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Mann) are long-married and facing numerous crises that Apatow thinks are funny (hemorrhoids, vulgar and obnoxious children, and employees who may be stealing). “This Is 40,” which doesn’t contain an interesting story, consists merely of a series of vignettes that fail on every level. Rudd is an accomplished actor, and a favorite of the director, but he’s reached his sell-by date with this effort.
In an act that strikes me as twisted, Apatow’s daughters play the children in the movie, and the filth that spews out of their mouths amounts to overkill. I suppose Judd and Leslie think it’s harmless to have their little Maude and Iris swear, but there’s something perverse at play here.
“This Is 40” is about a family you wouldn’t want to know, so why bother to pay good money spending time with them?
Movie reviewer Michael Calleri can be reached at movie email@example.com.