Keeping Up With The Steins is a movie made by Jews, about Jews, and starring Jews (or, as its referred to in Hollywood, a "movie"). It is the classic tale of a half-a-million dollar Bar Mitzvah party and a naked hippie grandfather.
Bar Mitzvah boy Benjamin Fiedler (Daryl Sabara) struggles with the daunting responsibility of fast-approaching manhood as his parents struggle with the daunting responsibility of throwing the biggest, wildest, most obnoxious, over-the-top Bar Mitzvah Brentwood has ever seen. Unfortunately, the Steins got there first. For Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven), Zachary Stein's Titanic-themed Bar Mitzvah bash must be topped at all costs - less for the glory of his son, than the chance to one-up his rival, Zach's fellow Hollywood-agent father, Arnie Stein (Larry Miller).
To divert attention from the baseball-themed Dodger Stadium blowout ("could we get the Rabbi to slide into home plate?"), Benjamin secretly invites his estranged grandfather (Garry Marshall) and his much-younger earthy girlfriend (Daryl Hannah) to visit the family two weeks before the big day. Now Adam's the one with shpilkes, as he is forced to deal with his feelings toward the man who abandoned him, all while watching him play Zeide with a grandson that he never met.
Despite the obvious Jewishness of the story, the humor and playfulness of this film should have broad appeal, across religious demographics. After all, the Catholics need something to see during their boycott of The Da Vinci Code.
Piven plays essentially the same character as he does on Entourage, the huge HBO hit. Miramax claims the resemblance to Piven's Emmy-nominated Ari Gold is pure coincidence, but I suspect a conspiracy (even the Temple is named "Adat Ari El"). Both Adam Fiedler and Ari Gold are selfish, witty Hollywood agents whose entire energy is devoted to being, as Benjamin says, "a pimp for movie stars."
Like him or not, Piven has mastered the portrayal of the stereotypical agent the same way that Bob Newhart perfected the one-sided telephone conversation. Edgy and short-tempered, he is the ultimate guy who you should hate, but just can't.
Jami Gertz is perfect as Benjamin's mother, looking remarkably as cute as she did at Muffy Tepperman's Bat Mitzvah, over twenty years earlier (gulp). Always smiling, she is clueless to the fact that her husband is not acting in their son's best interest and, for that matter, completely blind to any of her son's interests. At one point, clearly miserable with the misguided attention of his parents, Benjamin opens up that all he wants is for both his father and grandfather to attend his Bar Mitzvah in harmony. His mother's reaction: "Benji is so lucky he has a dad who only wants to give him the best."
Garry Marshall plays a believable eccentric man, living on an Indian reservation with his far more attractive girlfriend: "She's very lovely," he says, of her. "Even more important, she can drive at night." Marshall is the catalyst who teaches his son and grandson the lessons of his lost years and captures a glimpse of what he missed out on by deserting his family. He provides many of the touching moments in the film, as well as the corny one-liners expected from a Jewish grandfather.
Sabara is well cast as Benjamin, a kind-hearted, but awkward 13 year-old who has a crush on the beautiful, but affected and self-involved girl in his Hebrew class (or, as they say in Hebrew class, a "girl"). Lucky for his parents, he also happens to be wise beyond his years. While his parents are at work planning "the biggest Bar Mitzvah in the history of Bar Mitzvahs," Benjamin is left to figure out the true meaning of this rite of passage.
First-time director Scott Marshall (Garry's son) does a remarkable job, despite four gratuitous close-ups of his father's bare ass (who would have thought that in a movie starring Daryl Hannah, Jami Gertz and Cheryl Hines, the only 4 nude shots would be of Garry Marshall?). Although I am sure the last name helped secure the all-star cast ("Dad, could you invite some friends over tonight?"), Marshall took an 84-minute sitcom and turned it into a funny, subtle, heartwarming film.
Unlike many movies of this genre, the filmmaker does not push the message down our throats. Without giving away the ending, Marshall avoids leaving the audience with the schmaltzy moral diatribe that is almost commonplace in "family" films.
Not that there isn't a lesson to be learned from all the meshugas. The movie touches on sensitive issues and will definitely bring up questions from younger viewers ("Mom, why are they wearing those funny looking hats?") A common theme of the movie is illustrated by Doris Roberts, as Benjamin's quirky grandmother: "there are few angels and devils in the real world and most of us fall in between."
The events leading up to Benjamin's Bar Mitzvah take us on a fun journey of prayer, family conflict and brisket. Like a bottle of cheap kosher wine, Keeping Up With The Steins seems overly sweet at first, but leaves us surprisingly satisfied at the finish.
Keeping Up With The Steins opens in select cities on May 12th.