"Keeping Up With the Steins" is a gentle, uplifting comedy that offers life lessons with a healthy dose of schmaltz.
Worn out from earth-shattering summer blockbusters? Weary of overlong, overproduced, self-important extravaganzas? Want something lighter, warmer, a little "Greek Wedding-y"? Have we got a film for you. "Keeping Up With the Steins" is a nice change of pace from the high-octane bombast presently ruling most movie screens. It's not the kind of comedy that makes you laugh till your face hurts, but it'll give your smile muscles a good workout. And that's not chopped liver.
As his bar mitzvah approaches, 12-year-old Benjamin Fiedler (Daryl Sabara) is in trouble. He hasn't memorized the Haftorah he will have to read before the congregation, much less come to understand it.
More crucially, Ben hasn't chosen his party's theme and time is of the essence. His hypercompetitive father, Hollywood agent Adam (Jeremy Piven of HBO's "Entourage") needs all the details in place if he is going to top the Stein family's lollapalooza. That "Titanic"-themed kitschfest on a hired ocean liner concluded with young Zachary boasting, "I'm king of the Torah!"
Not only is there serious status competition at stake -- Arnie Stein (Larry Miller) runs a rival talent agency, and he shouldn't look more successful -- but Adam is overcompensating for his own passage to manhood. His long-lost father, Irwin (Gary Marshall), a goof-off who bugged out on the family years ago, gave Adam "the cheapest bar mitzvah in history."
Adam, determined not to repeat that mistake, makes new mistakes of his own. If Ben goes with a baseball theme, Adam prods, the event planner could get Dodger Stadium. She's already thrown bar mitzvahs at the Vatican with Versace gift bags.
Ben, more mature than most of the adults around him, quietly lobbies for something less high-pressure and high-profile. Maybe something family-oriented that would enable him to get to know his grandpa.
Adam reluctantly agrees, but remains estranged from Irwin, a retirement-age hippie who arrives a couple of weeks early with his girlfriend Sacred Feather (Daryl Hannah) in tow. The pressured Ben and laid-back Irwin hit it off and the old man realizes that without understanding Jewish traditions, Ben's passage will be an empty ritual. He requests some personal instruction for Ben from the boy's rabbi (Richard Benjamin), a celebrity author more concerned with his newest book's Amazon ranking than clocking time in the classroom. He explains to Ben the notion of "Tikkun olam" -- "repairing the world" -- a phrase that is central to the Jewish concept of social justice. Suddenly Ben knows what he wants his day to be about. He'll gently help the squabbling Adam and Irwin become men, too.
Fans of slash-and-burn satire should look elsewhere. This is a sweet, schmaltzy exercise that is all about uplift, reconciliation and positive life lessons.
It's not entirely toothless, however. The wise-but-shiftless Irwin and driven-but-myopic Adam are a family unit from Hell, nicely brought to life by actors with solid comic instincts. Marshall virtually perfected this kind of lovable comedy as a TV producer with "Happy Days" and "Laverne & Shirley," and as a film director with "The Flamingo Kid" and "Pretty Woman."Keeping Up With the Steins," the first feature by his son Scott, is a pleasant addition to the family tradition.
Keeping Up With The Steins
**½ out of four stars
The setup: A comedy about a status-conscious Hollywood agent planning to use his son's lavish bar mitzvah to one-up a business rival.
What works: An unapologetic message about the true meaning of the coming-of-age ceremony.
What doesn't: Old naked tushies in a hot tub -- is that still funny? Was it ever?
Great scene: Two words: Neil Diamond.
Rating: PG-13 for some crude language, nudity and brief drug references.
Colin Covert 612-673-7186