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Cheek-Pinch-Apalooza 2012

My mom died this year. She'd been unwell for a long time so it wasn't a shock. At the end she spent seven months in hospice care. We were prepared. But now, several months after her passing, I find myself missing her in a variety of weird circumstances. Like while watching this movie. I wasn't expecting that.

I wasn't expecting it because of how they're selling it. It's a big Christmas release, aimed squarely down the middle of the road, a showcase for Barbra Streisand's glowing skin, perfect nails, best-side profile and, oh yeah, her return to comedy. (No, those rotten Fockers movies aren't comedy. Ever. For anyone. I'd sooner watch The Mirror Has Two Faces again.) All pre-release signs pointed to a bland, featureless, laugh-less exercise in superstar branding, with a neutered, PG-13-constricted Seth Rogen along for the duration. Maybe some shrieking thrown in there somewhere, too. It seemed like what was in store, nothing to make anybody feel much of anything or respond with more than some medium-sized chuckles. But that's not what it is. I know, shocker.

Yes, this road trip comedy with grumpy Rogen and affection-overdosing Streisand is episodic and safe, cute when it could be sharp and as occasionally artificial as you might expect. But those episodes are frequently just odd enough -- they listen to the book Middlesex together while driving, they invade stripper bars and all-you-can-eat steak houses and choose the path not taken while navigating both -- and its cuteness just prickly enough to win you over. The friction-filled mother-son moments alone, predicated on both characters having to give and take, to be both wrong and right, are enough to pass the jaded-viewer test.

As they move across country in their too-small rental car, typical gag setups are often subverted by specific and unusual outcomes, while its overall sweetness and insistence on its own adorable qualities travel well with unexpected, intelligent surprises. We're treated to a more relaxed, happy and game Streisand than we've seen on screen in a while, as well as a gentler Rogen. It suits them both and their thoroughly appealing screen chemistry carries the movie over its less inspired moments. She babies him in exactly the right way and he responds less like an abrasive stoner and more like a grown man seeing his mother in a new light.

But the biggest surprise of all isn't how Streisand can turn eating a five-pound steak into a strangely realistic flirtation with a handsome cowboy or how she can make lines like "It was a trampy year for Mommy" and "I need more cheesy fries!" feel like her best comedy work since 1972's great What's Up Doc? That honor falls to a gently moving mother-and-child finale that'll bring out the secret Mama's Boy in you. You'll want to visit her if you haven't done so in a while, or just wish that you could.


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