Twenty-one years ago two of our greatest gay iconsBarbra Streisand and Bette Midlerwent head to head with holiday movies. Bette was first out of the gate Thanksgiving weekend in 1991 with her self-produced labor of love, For the Boys while Barbra's directorial and starring effort, The Prince of Tides, appeared on Christmas Day. Midler's movie famously flopped at the box office but it brought her personal raves and an Oscar nomination; it is musically sublime and remains an unappreciated gem. Streisand's film, a heavy psychological drama mixed with a melodramatic romance, was a financial success and also got its share of Oscar attentionthough she herself was overlooked, which caused a bit of a flap at the time.
Now these two divas, worshipped by the gay community for decades (half a century for Babs, 40+ years for Bette) are back in theaters. Only a week apart, Streisand is co-starring with Seth Rogen in the mother-son road comedy The Guilt Trip, and Midler is teaming with Billy Crystal in the fish-out-of-water comedy Parental Guidance. Both are generation-gap movies that don't offer a tenth of the challenge or pleasures their 1991 releases did. But there they are, giving their all to the extremely formulaic material that composes both movies; both amiably doing their jobs with as much gusto as they can muster. Both pictures rely on the expertise of these two extraordinarily talented women and while neither is going to set the movie world on fire (either critically or at the box office), for audience members of a certain age and mentality (read: adults and those looking for safe, familiar material), these two are an okay waste of time at the cineplex. And they'll have to do until we get our two superstars into movies more befitting of their protean talents (and maybe one day they'll actually co-star in one together).
Of the two movies, Streisand's has the edgeThe Guilt Trip, based on a real-life road trip between screenwriter Dan Fogelman and his motheris a lovely, bittersweet comedy that doesn't resort to the usual gross-out stuff so in vogue these days to get laughs. Streisand plays Joyce Brewster, a New Jersey-based widow who has fussed over her only child, Andy (Rogen), to the point where he's moved across the country to get away from her. Andy is an inventor trying to get his product placed with a mega-retailer and, in a moment of weakness during a brief visit home, he invites mom to accompany him as he travels the states to his meetings. Naturally, he's embarrassed by the unrelenting attention and fussiness of his mom, who treats him like her little boy and is unstinting in her praise of his every small effort.
As the trip continues, mother slowly loses some of her uptight reserve, and son gradually realizes that mom isn't always wrong or such an overbearing ogre. The situations are predictable in the extreme, but director Anne Fletcher (The Proposal, 27 Dresses) smartly keeps things centered on the bond between Streisand and Rogen. She is surprisingly warm and he shows surprising depth, and the arc of the thawing relationship between mother and son feels just right and unforced. The laughs are gentle, of the chuckle rather than laugh-out-loud variety and they're plentiful enough to overlook the episodic sequences. While this undemanding film won't exactly thrill or grow Streisand or Rogen's individual fan bases, taking your mom or dad to see The Guilt Trip isn't a half-bad idea.
I am slightly more cautious about recommending the Midler comedy, Parental Guidance, in which she takes the secondary role as the good-natured but long-suffering wife of sports announcer Billy Crystal. Crystal's affability and razor-sharp timing haven't dimmed in the decades since he broke through to movies in the mid-'80s, but here both he and Midler are saddled with having to play grandparents to a trio of enabled kids who don't know the meaning of the word "no." The couple's fidgety, high-strung daughter (Marisa Tomei) and her husband want to leave their Atlanta home for a five-day vacation, and absent grandparents Crystal and Midler step in. Naturally, the three kiddies are just as uptight as mom and it will take both these expert clowns to loosen 'em up in a series of increasingly unfunny, stale sequences.
And yet … here we go again with material that two pros like Crystal and Midler (and to a lesser extent, Tomei) are talented enough to ring laughs out of (Crystal especially). The kids are mostly a drag and the schmaltz is poured on as thick as maple syrup, but if those by-the-numbers Disney '60s comedies with Suzanne Pleshette and Dean Jones and stuff like Kindergarten Cop and Look Who's Talking and Father of the Bride are your thing, Parental Guidance will warm you up over the holidays. And for a brief momentwhen Bette and Billy duet in a little '50s doo-wop to "Book of Love"the movie achieves nirvana.
- Oscar-winning movie matinees: The Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., is starting the February Oscar countdown with a nine-week matinee series (every Saturday-Sunday at 11:30 a.m.) showcasing a stellar group of Academy Award winners. Things kick off Dec. 29-30 with queer director Murnau's masterful silent 1927 classic Sunrise and continue in subsequent weeks with 1954's On the Waterfront (Jan. 5-6) starring bisexual heartthrob Marlon Brando; 1951's A Place in the Sun (Jan. 13), with gay pretty boy Montgomery Clift and stunningly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor as the doomed lovers; Bette Davis and company in 1950's All About Eve (Jan. 19-20), the theatrical bitchfest; Gable and Colbert in the delightful 1934 road picture It Happened One Night (Jan. 26-27); 1976's Network (Feb. 2-3) with a pre-Mommie Dearest Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch; 1942's Casablanca (Feb. 10); bisexual director Vincente Minnelli's sumptuous 1958 musical confection, Gigi (Feb. 16-17); and gay director John Schlesinger's quasi-queer love story, 1969's Midnight Cowboy (Feb. 23-24). www.musicboxtheatre.com
- New Year's Eve with Shelley Winters: This is your last call to board the SS Poseidon on New Year's Eve for Camp Midnight's 5th annual camptacular presentation of 1972's The Poseidon Adventure (celebrating its 40th anniversary) on Monday, Dec. 31, at the Music Box Theatre. This year, as in the past, Dick O'Day (my alter ego) will bravely captain our film going passengers on a pre-show voyage (setting sail at 11 p.m.) that includes party favors, a champagne toast, comp drink ticket, '70s cruisewear costume contest (with prizes), and an interactive screening guide. As always, I'll be joined by David Cerda, artistic director of Handbag Productions, to provide running commentary throughout the film along with members of the Handbag theatrical troupe. The screening of the film will be timed so that theater patrons and their celluloid counterparts will celebrate midnight at the exact same time. And the rotund Shelley Winters (aka Steve Kimbrough) will return to perform the hilarious "In the Water I'm a Very Skinny Lady" musical number pre-show. www.musicboxtheatre.com .
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter