Keeping Up with the Steins

(2006) * 1/2 Pg-13
84 min. Miramax Films. Director: Scott Marshall. Cast: Daryl Sabara, Jeremy Piven, Garry Marshall, Jami Gertz, Doris Roberts.

Scott Marshall's dramedy Keeping Up with the Steins details the sad dilemma of bar mitzvah escalation. Once the Steins of Brentwood throw a Titanic-themed bar mitzvah, complete with iceberg, ship, and boychik on bow yelping, "Today I am king of the Torah!", the Fiedlers discover they'll have to work hard to...y'know.

Power-agent Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven) begins plotting a baseball-themed extravaganza without much consulting son Benjamin (Daryl Sabara of Spy Kids) or tending to the needs of his wife (Jami Gertz). Meanwhile, Ben's more interested in affecting a reunion between his dad and grandpa Irwin, played by the director's always amusing father, Garry Marshall. Irwin's a desert hippie married to a much-younger flower child (Daryl Hannah), two character types whose dramatic potential is long-since overdrawn.

Doris Roberts turns up as Irwin's ex-wife, a dead ringer for her long-running TV character Marie Barone ("I'm not saying anything, but I'm thinking something"). Richard Benjamin plays a rabbi too busy for his congregation, and two pop stars cameo, but only the riffing Marshall delivers any chuckles, describing Irwin as having "the heart of a child and the bladder of a chihuahua."

Keeping Up with the Steins amounts to an Afterschool Special about the perils of letting pettiness and materialism crowd out family and faith. In the film's world, competitive parents and self-involved rabbis obscure the true meaning behind bar mitzvahs and a son and father can't play nice long enough to see out the celebration without a public fight.

Screenwriter Mark Zakarin (a producer of The L Word) manages some observations about adolescence that, though not so fresh, have the ring of truth and fairly question the arbitrariness of the ritual's timing. Ben's a "late developer" with jitters about his impending public reading from the Torah, and when he looks in the mirror and tells himself, "Today you are a man!", he's still gripping his SpongeBob toothbrush.

Unfortunately for director Marshall, Keeping Up with the Steins is a comedy fatally short on laughs. The jokes are mostly bad vaudeville, as when Piven asks, "How much for 50 Cent? Okay, how about 17 Cent?" or when Marshall asks, "What is this: Queer Eye for the Straight Goy?" Sometimes the situation comedy is so desperate that it's funny, as when Marshall pulls a sword cane on Adam Goldberg's street tough or skinny-dips in the backyard. Oy!

[For Groucho's interview with Garry Marshall, click here.]

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