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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.