When the Jewish Mother and Son Get Their Day on the Silver Screen

Nag and Nebbish Are Not Only Depictions in Hollywood

On the Road: Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand play a stressed out mother and son in “The Guilt Trip.”
Courtesy of Paramount Home Media Distribution
On the Road: Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand play a stressed out mother and son in “The Guilt Trip.”

By Marla Brown Fogelman and Jeremy Fogelman

Published May 11, 2013, issue of May 10, 2013.
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A Jewish mother gives her son two ties on the first night of Hanukkah. The following morning, when he comes down for breakfast, he is wearing one of them. The mom says, “What’s the matter — you didn’t like the other one?”

— Sheldon Kimmelman in “Old Jews Telling Jokes”

Even while guffawing at old jokes about Jewish mothers and sons, most of us want newer material, or maybe less schmaltzy laughs on this motif, when we go to the movies. At least that was what we — a Washington, D.C. film critic and his freelance writer mother — were looking for when we decided to come up with a list of the most thought-provoking movies about Jewish mothers and sons.

Looking for a more nuanced cinematic spin on this well-worn theme, we chose movies that a) had come out in the three decades after “Portnoy’s Complaint” and b) had not been directed by Woody Allen. As Mother’s Day approaches, with its attendant themes of guilt and gifts, we present the following reviews and ratings in terms of matzo balls: from 1 (drenched in cliche) to 5 (light but filling).

“The Guilt Trip” (2012)
1 matzo ball

Who else but a “nice Jewish boy” would invite his overbearing mother on a cross-country road trip? As meshuga as it sounds, the plot of “The Guilt Trip” is based on real life: Screenwriter Dan Fogelman (no relation) did take a road trip with his late, beloved, food-obsessed mother. But they presumably had a better time than their counterparts in this movie. Put-upon son Andrew Brewster (Seth Rogen) and his meddling mother, Joyce (Barbra Streisand), spend most of their travel time being annoyed with or offended by each other, even though their individual motives are laudable: He secretly wants to reunite her with her first love; she wants to help him with his self-esteem issues and the sale of his new cleaning product.

As tensions escalate, and Andy finally explodes at Joyce after she dishes out one too many helpings of sensible advice, we learn that this nice Jewish boy is actually kind of mean. Ultimately, we found the Jewish mother and son in “The Guilt Trip” to be one-dimensional shtick figures in need of some major screenwriting therapy.

“50/50” (2011)
4 matzo balls

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets cancer and must try to deal with his 50% chance of survival. Along the way, his best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen, giving a much better performance than in “The Guilt Trip”), tries to keep up his spirits, and Adam visits an inexperienced therapist (Anna Kendrick). The Jewish mother aspect comes in with the fantastic performance by Anjelica Huston as Diane, Adam’s somewhat overbearing mother who’s already caring for a husband suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Although there is a bit of humor in the way Diane wants to take care of her son, the Jewish mother stereotype acts as a way to lighten the mood and humanize the characters. The mother-son relationship is an important part of the movie and of Adam’s darkly comic journey, but it’s not the focus. And maybe that’s why it works.


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