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Keeping Up with the Steins

Bland, Uninspired Family Comedy

Directed by Scott ("son of Garry, nephew of Penny") Marshall and written by first time feature screenwriter, Mark Zakarin, Keeping Up with the Steins is a rote, routine, modestly ambitious family comedy that plays out like the pilot for a bland, mostly innocuous television series with an "ethnic" twist (the central characters are Jewish). Emphasizing broad stereotypes over authentic characters, telegraphed gags and stale jokes over humor or wit, plus sitcom-level performances by a (mostly) talented, if underused, cast (many with years of television experience), Keeping Up with the Steins is destined for a short theatrical run, with the likelihood of a longer shelf life at video stores or cable television.

Thirteen-year old Benjamin Fiedler (Daryl Sabara) is about to face one of the most important experiences in the Jewish faith, his bar mitzvah, the ceremony where his "coming-of-age" and passage into manhood is celebrated by his family and friends. For Benjamin's parents, Adam (Jeremy Piven) and Joanne (Jami Gertz), the bar mitzvah offers them the perfect opportunity to match or, better yet, top Zachary Stein's (Carter Jenkins) recent bar mitzvah held aboard a cruise liner. Benjamin and Zachary are actually friends. Their respective fathers, Adam and Arnie (Larry Miller), are former friends and business partners turned rivals. Adam and Joanne hire Casey Nudleman (Cheryl Hines), Arnie's party planner, to plan their own.

For Adam, however, throwing a lavish celebration for his son's bar mitzvah has a deeper purpose, to remove the bitter memories of his own bar mitzvah, where he was humiliated by his family's relative poverty. Soon after Adam's bar mitzvah, Adam's father, Irwin (Garry Marshall), left his son and his wife, Rose (Doris Roberts), and took up a countercultural lifestyle in California. Irwin's subsequent attempts to renew contact with his son and his son's family have ended in failure. Benjamin, however, works around his father's prohibition and invites Irwin to his bar mitzvah. While Benjamin hopes for his father and grandfather to reconcile, he hopes to distract his father's obsessive behavior with his grandfather. On the plus side, Benjamin hopes to invite his blonde-haired crush, Ashley (Brittany Robertson), to his bar mitzvah (he has to get his courage up first, though).

Irwin duly arrives at the Fielder residence in a rickety camper, two weeks ahead of schedule. Irwin has brought along his much younger girlfriend, Sandy, aka Sacred Feather (Daryl Hannah). The stage is set then for two weeks of conflict, misunderstandings, fallouts, and reconciliations at or during the bar mitzvah, and Mark Zakarin's script doesn't disappoint (if by disappoint we mean a steady stream of predictable plot turns punctuated by, at most, mildly amusing jokes or gags, including one overused gag of Irwin's sagging buttocks).

Keeping Up with the Steins has few, ultimately negligible positives. Scott Marshall directs the film competently, but with little visual style or energy. Clichéd plot turn follows clichéd plot turn, with only one significant exception, the scenes involving Irwin and Rose's reunion. While we might expect bitterness, accusations, even some dish breaking, that never happens. Instead, Irwin and Rose meet as mature adults who see themselves and each other realistically, admitting their relative faults in the end of their marriage. Unfortunately, Keeping Up with the Steins has little else to offer.

The performances (young and old) are uniformly bland, with the exception of Jeremy Piven as Benjamin's obsessive father and Irwin's unforgiving son. And where Marshall and Zakarin could have (and probably should have) opted for increasingly farcical plot turns, they instead went for an underwritten, limp finale. It's a finale that not even a "surprise" appearance by a well known Jewish singer/performer can save from being forgotten moments after paying audiences have left the theater.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars