By CHRISTY LEMIRE, AP Movie Critic
Tue May 9, 11:40 AM ET
With its sitcommy dialogue, wacky family antics and good-natured ribbing of religious traditions, “Keeping Up With the Steins” plays like “My Big Fat L.A. Bar Mitzvah.”
And yet, like the 2002 surprise smash “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the movie is so warmhearted and well-intentioned, it’s hard not to be charmed.
The movie’s TV comedy origins are solid and unmistakable, with a cast including Jeremy Piven (playing an agent as he does on “Entourage”), Doris Roberts (“Everybody Loves Raymond”), Jami Gertz (“Still Standing”), Cheryl Hines (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and Garry Marshall (name a beloved series from the 1970s and ’80s and he was probably involved with it).
“Steins” is the first feature film from director Scott Marshall — as in son-of-Garry and nephew-of-Penny — based on the first script from Mark Zakarin. Marshall shows the restraint of a more experienced filmmaker, though, by letting the jokes and sight gags stand on their own and not smothering them with frantic pacing and needlessly jaunty music. These are actors who clearly know what they’re doing, and Marshall knows well enough to let them do it.
Jewish or not, anyone can relate to the adolescent angst of Benjamin Fiedler (Daryl Sabara from the “Spy Kids” movies). Just a few weeks away from his bar mitzvah, the 13-year-old understands what it means to be a man about as much as he understands his haftorah, which he’s afraid to recite in front of his equally awkward Hebrew school classmates, much less a packed synagogue on the big day.
He’s also feeling especially pressured to measure up to friend Zachary Stein (Carter Jenkins), who’s just celebrated his bar mitzvah in hilariously elaborate fashion aboard a cruise ship with a “Titanic” theme. Not that Benjamin himself cares all that much about throwing his own over-the-top party. That’s more his dad’s priority; Piven’s Adam Fiedler is a high-powered agent in upscale Brentwood competing for business with Zachary’s dad, played by yet another comedy veteran, Larry Miller.
Benjamin is more interested in using the occasion to reunite his father and his grandfather, Irwin (Garry Marshall), who left Benjamin’s grandmother (Roberts) and family more than 20 years earlier. Defying his father’s wishes, he secretly sends an invitation to his baseball-themed bar mitzvah (at Dodger Stadium, no less) to his grandfather, who now wears his hair in an unfortunate ponytail and lives on a New Mexico Indian reservation with his much-younger girlfriend ( Daryl Hannah), a vegan who goes by the name Sacred Feather.
Longtime family resentments will be aired, of course. Reconciliations eventually will be forged. And young Benjamin will stumble toward manhood. All feel-good stuff, but there are enough genuinely funny lines and realistic coming-of-age moments here — who hasn’t raided their parents’ liquor cabinet and mixed a splash of everything into a glass, just to see what it tastes like? — to make it more than worthwhile.
Besides, Neil Diamond shows up and sings “Hava Nagila.” What’s not to like?
“Keeping Up With the Steins,” a Miramax Films release, is rated PG-13 for some crude language, nudity and brief drug references. Running time: 85 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.