Bar mitzvah's, weddings, and proms! Oy vey!
'Keeping Up With the Steins' is the lastest film to look at celebrations gone awry
To paraphrase the old ad for Levy's rye bread, you don't have to be Jewish to love ``Keeping Up With the Steins," but it helps.
Scott Marshall's coming-of-tribal-age comedy is warm, witty, and sitcom-obvious -- a genuine audience pleaser that's built to wring laughs of pained recognition from anyone who has survived a bar mitzvah as either a participant or an observer. Seriously: Pick the kids up from temple -- as one character acidly notes, nobody likes Hebrew school anyway -- drag Nana away from the mah-jongg table, and take the whole clan. What, you're going to kvetch about a movie where Richard Benjamin plays the rabbi?
This being Los Angeles, the competitive stakes are in the thermosphere. ``Keeping Up With the Steins" opens with a ``Titanic"-themed bar mitzvah aboard a massive cruise ship, with young Zachary Stein (Carter Jenkins) crowing, ``I'm king of the Torah!"
Sitting at a nearby table is 13-year-old Benjamin Fiedler (Daryl Sabara) and his parents, Adam (Jeremy Piven of ``Entourage") and Joanne (ex-Brat Packer Jami Gertz, edging gracefully back onto the big screen after a long hiatus). The Fiedlers are slack-jawed with horror, both at the 10-ton kitsch on display and the thought that they'll have to do better.
Adam's an agent -- Piven basically plays Ari from ``Entourage" with a slightly lower metabolism -- so he has the contacts to rent out Dodger Stadium and book Neil Diamond. Benjamin isn't sure what he wants, other than to recite the Haftorah without sounding like Pee-wee Herman in the throes of puberty. He conceives a plan: Invite Adam's estranged father, Irwin (Garry Marshall), two weeks early and watch pop's head spin so fast he won't care about anything other than his imminent nervous breakdown.
Irwin dutifully arrives: The man who abandoned his family decades ago is now a grizzled alter kocker dropout towing a new age girlfriend named Sacred Feather, nee Sandy Frost (Daryl Hannah). These two like to skinny dip in the pool, to the delighted disgust of Benjamin and his friends. Benjamin's forgiving grandma Rose (Doris Roberts) is willing to allow her ex back into her life, but Adam careens into a throbbing-vein fit of adolescent resentment that lasts most of the movie.
Can't blame him really. Irwin did give his son ``the cheapest bar mitzvah in history," up to and including sponsored yarmulkes.
Until now, ``Keeping Up With the Steins" has been enjoyably sharp about the tortures and hypocrisies of privileged Judaism: the rabbi with a bestseller called ``The Passion of the Jews," the party planner named Casey Nudelman (Cheryl Hines) who arranges Versace-themed bar mitzvahs at the Vatican. It's all reminiscent of ``My Big Fat Greek Wedding," but better, and with brisket.
As Irwin settles in, though, out come the life lessons, and while Marshall evinces some nicely lazy Borscht Belt timing, the movie's sails go a bit slack. Director Scott Marshall is Garry's son (neither is Jewish, go figure, but screenwriter Mark Zakarin is) and open-hearted familial indulgence trumps edginess. Garry Marshall suggests a kind er, gentler Alan Arkin here; that's fine, but catch Arkin in the upcoming ``Little Miss Sunshine" to see what can really be done with an errant-grandpa role.
Anyway, ``Keeping Up With the Steins" is happy to forgo satire to settle for a bar mitzvah that actually matters to Benjamin. The sitcom formula holds: There are family reconciliations, and our young hero comes to understand that a smart, unflashy classmate (Miranda Cosgrove) might offer truer romance than a shiksa-wannabe (Brittany Robertson).
``Steins" plays to the whole family (and the cantor, too), in other words, but it's the unassuming messages at the movie's heart -- survive your family; do it yourself -- that'll give bar mitzvah boys of all ages such naches.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.