A Jewish man calls his mother in Florida. "Mom, and
how are you."
Not too good," says the mother. "I've been very weak."
son says, "Why are you so weak?"
She says, "Because, I
haven't eaten in 38 days."
Mama," the man says, "that's terrible. Why haven't you eaten
in 38 days?"
The mother answers, "Because I didn't want my
mouth to be filled with food if you should call." - Ancient Jewish Joke (source)
On paper, and even from the trailers, the idea of a Seth Rogen/Barbara Streisand road movie sounds like the stuff of horror movies. It's probably a testament to the talents of those involved that the film isn't quite the abomination that it looks to be from the marketing, but that's hardly the stuff of glowing endorsements.
Rogen plays Andy Brewster, an awkward chemist-cum-pitch man trying to huck his newest invention, an all-natural cleaning product made from coconut, palm and soy oil (yes, these ingredients form an important part of the narrative). He returns to New Jersey to spend time with his smothering mom, only to find out that his namesake was a boyfriend that his mother had before he was born. Andy thus hatches a plan to meet up with man who he is named after as part of a cross country marketing push for his product.
This is the gist you get from the trailer, that it'll be a light, heckling banter between the two actors as they find themselves in various circumstances. To its credit, the film tries to be much more than that, actually getting quite dark and serious in places, exploring the close relationship between mother and her only child complete with the button pushing that only this type of family relationship can muster.
Babs has been in supporting roles of late, but she manages to show that she's still an actor with a tremendous range, and seems completely willing to throw herself into the role. It's a hard character to feel affection for, especially at her most neurotic and shrill, yet she somehow manages to balance it all out.
Rogen, alas, seems more out of his element than I was expecting, and while mostly a foil for Streisand's swings of mood, there's just not enough zing in his portrayal. I'm usually a fan of his, but I found his slunken portrayal just not the right fit for the part.
What's clear is that this is a love letter from former PIXAR scribe Dan Fogelman to his own mother. Taking nothing away from the skills of a fine Hollywood screenwriter, it's clear that this is a work born from experience.
We get all the trappings that those of us privileged enough to have Jewish mothers (some would kvetch about being cursed) live with, and can immediately find uncomfortable synchronicity with many of the circumstances that play out on screen. It's probably no surprise that the eminently Semitic Rogen and Streisand have been gentile-ified as "Brewsters" in the film (I looked, no Mezuzah on her door), but it would be impossible for anyone remotely Hebraic to see this as anything more than almost a sociological documentary about how love, guilt, and argumentation form the bond between a Jewish mother and her son.
In other words, this film isn't simply a light comedy, but nor is it the kind of biting social satire that the likes of a Woody Allen can provide. It's a weird mish mash of set pieces and awkward asides, of wish fulfilling conclusions and segués into steak restaurants. Yet it's also a film with moments of hostility and anxiousness, of tears and full out arguments that make the film slightly more than the usual dreck.
I'm sure there's an audience for this film, that there are those of an age looking for counter programming from the Hobbit
of Middle-earth or the fart jokes of This Is 40
(think of that one as more Shiksa-friendly Jewish wish fulfillment). I'm assuming that many of the themes surrounding the challenges of an overbearing yet well meaning parent are universal enough, but it's hard to see this as anything but an extension of some Yiddish morality play. Considering the film opens on December 25, the annual celebration where Jews eat Chinese food and watch movies, you might actually see enough of a box office return to justify its production. Do not be surprise to see an uptick in sons getting calls immediately after the screening.
What's certain is that this doesn't fit in nicely with Rogen's usual demographic, but for a slew of Middle Aged fans of Babs, it will be heartwarming to see her return on screen making the most out of what could have easily been a frightful character. Frankly, saying "it could have been worse" about the film fits in nicely with the tone of the entire piece.
Which reminds me, I've got to go call my mother: After all, it's been more than twelve hours since we spoke, and she's probably worried...