The Guilt Trip (2012)

On Not Drinking Windex

I often tell my students to make a good film, put two characters in a cardboard box, and imagine what they’d begin doing to one another. The Guilt Trip (Anne Fletcher, 2012) is such a film, about a son (Seth Rogen) and his mother (Barbra Streisand) who drive from New York City to San Francisco together in an absurdly small compact car. The film is full of unexpected delights, thanks to a pitch perfect script by Dan Fogelman (who has written both animated children’s fare—Cars and Tangled—as well as romantic comedies, such as Crazy, Stupid Love).

The Guilt Trip is a very odd sort of romantic comedy, in that the romance is replaced by a son coming to understand his mother, and vice versa. As such, its great predecessor is Albert Brooks’ Mother (1996), a terrific film in which a science-fiction writer comes to understand his mother’s stifling behavior by discovering she had dreams of becoming a professional writer herself before he was conceived. In one of the chapters of my book, Engaging Film Criticism, I describe the way Mother answers The Graduate (1967), a film about a young man, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), who only knows he doesn’t want to be like his parents’ generation because all they can offer him as advice is, “plastics.”

The Guilt Trip is a similar post-Graduate film. Andrew Brewster (Rogen) is a failing organic chemist, having perfected a revolutionary cleaning product that is eco-friendly because it is made from coconut, palm, and soy oils. Unlike Windex and other industrial cleaners, it is non-toxic, a metaphor aptly suited to a film about parenting. However, Andy is an incompetent salesman, packaging his product terribly, and giving it a terrible name, “scienclean,” which no one can pronounce. Andy spends the film driving across the United States, from east to west, moving between one failed pitch to the next. Andy has answered The Graduate‘s “plastics” with an organic solution, but the success of adulthood has not come his way. He is symbolically stuck on the back of the Santa Barbara bus which ends The Graduate, unable to sever his mother obsession (Streisand’s Joyce calls him incessantly), and unable to grow up.

Unlike Mother, which solves the son’s problem via detective work (the son discovers his mother’s short stories hidden in a hat box in the back of a closet), The Guilt Trip relies on that great American film genre, the road movie. As such, the film engages with themes of transformation via movement, images that harken back to The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), the ur-text of the American road movie. This strain of the road movie relies on the tradition of the bildungsroman: Dorothy must grow into a mature woman by learning, “there’s no place like home.” Andy must learn to grow into a successful businessman by learning to perform, reconciling this behavior with his upbringing by a single mother (played in no inconsequential way by Barbra Streisand, one of the great singing, acting entertainers of the last half of the 20th century).

The Guilt Trip’s climax involves Andy following his mother’s performance lessons. Earlier in the film, she encourages him to drink his cleaner to dramatically prove its difference from the other products on the market. When Andy’s audition for the Home Shopping Network on a television set goes as terribly as all of his previous pitches, he throws caution to the wind and follows his mother’s advice. Unlike the death that would result if he drank Windex, Andy’s drinking of his product does not affect him at all. The moment is crucial for understanding the impact of The Guilt Trip: Streisand teaches Andy to be a showman to achieve the American Dream, which in turn takes a typical mother-son relationship and turns it non-toxic.

Oddly, The Guilt Trip is mostly indebted to the romantic comedy strain of the road movie, first expressed by the fabulous It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934) but more familiar to contemporary audiences in the guise of Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991). Both Thelma and Louise and The Guilt Trip replace the romantic aspects of the comedy with a dual transformation plot. In Scott’s film, Thelma (Geena Davis) becomes more forceful because of Louise (Susan Sarandon), while the rape victim Louise learns to trust and love someone again. In The Guilt Trip, Andy learns from his mother to be a better public performer, while Joyce learns to let go of her smothering personality and live again as a self-sufficient adult not completely wrapped up in her son’s world.

The Guilt Trip‘s complex resonance with the American road movie is profound indeed. It is an optimistic movie that believes in the possibility of transformation, far different from the pessimism of the late 1960s anti-road trip films, such as Easy Rider. In that film, drug dealers played by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda travel east on motorcycles, gutting the optimism of the American western: they are riding motorized vehicles, not horses, and they are doing so in the wrong direction! Like Thelma and Louise, The Guilt Trip sees the American southwest as the motor of personal transformation. However, unlike Scott’s film in which the healed protagonists must jump off the Grand Canyon to their deaths rather than return to a dysfunctional patriarchy, in Fletchers’ film, Andy and Joyce stare bored at the Grand Canyon, moving away from it without incident, hurling toward the film’s climax in San Francisco, the end terminus of the westward expansion of American mythology.

The film also revisits a very different sort of road movie, Planes, Trains and Automobiles (John Hughes, 1987) in which a middle-class businessman (Steve Martin) and a working-class schlub (John Candy) struggle to get home to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families. The Guilt Trip also uses the road trip mythology to repair a damaged family, but inside the car, with very little reprieve, and in which an intense psychological hurt between mother and son is dissipated.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about The Guilt Trip is how it builds its narrative spine around a very different sort of family drama, Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, Middlesex (2002). As the road trip begins, Joyce places an audio CD of the book into the car’s stereo system. As the narrator (played with great comedic voice effect by Jeff Witzke) begins the story of a hermaphrodite, Andy ejects the CD, uncomfortable with such a frank discussion of transgender in the presence of his mother. For her part, Joyce says she chose the book because it was featured on Oprah’s Book Club in 2007.

Indeed, Middlesex is a compelling intertext for understanding the thematic concerns of The Guilt Trip. Both offer a bildungsroman about a boy/girl trying to understand his/her family legacy. They are also about the American Dream: in The Guilt Trip, Andy is trying to make it as an entrepreneur, in Middlesex, the family immigrates from Asia Minor to Detroit, seeking a new life in America. And, most importantly, Cal/Callie escapes from the East to San Francisco to come to terms with his/her gender identity.

The end of The Guilt Trip pays off this set-up beautifully. At the beginning of the film, Joyce tells Andy for the first time about her passionate love affair with Andrew Margolis, a man she met before his father. While the couple broke up, Joyce so loved Andrew that she named her son after him. Perhaps in an effort to distract his mother by rekindling a past love, or more likely to try to get an inside track with the advertising company Margolis founded, Andy drives his mother to the ex-flame’s house in San Francisco. When they get there, it turns out Andrew Sr. died five years prior, but they instead meet his son, Andy Jr. The script’s most heartfelt moment is the revelation that Andy’s sister is named Joyce, and that Andy Sr. held Streisand’s Joyce in the same secret place in his heart that Joyce did him.

As Andy and Joyce drive the car to the airport to return home, they listen to the last lines of the novel on CD: “I stood in the door for an hour, maybe two. I lost track after a while, happy to be home, weeping for my father, and thinking about what was next.” Neither Andy nor Joyce is the same people they were at the beginning of the film, both transformed by their Middlesex road trip. All of which is to indicate, in the most unlikely of Hollywood formulaic moviemaking, both intriguing engagements with high literature, and emotionally moving engagements with character can be found. We just have to learn how to seek such films out, and how to read them when we find them.

– Walter Metz