‘The Steins’: X-Treme Bar Mitzvahs
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006; Page C05
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who understand and revere the genius of the great Neil Diamond and those who are benighted, ignorant and pathetic. The second group should seek help. But until they get it, they should stay away from “Keeping Up With the Steins,” which is no great shakes as a movie but closes out on the great N.D. in full throaty warble as he tears through a coupla choruses of “Hava Nagila,” and, baby, if you ain’t crying and laughing and roaring with pleasure all at once, check for a pulse.
Aside from that great blast of bliss at the end, the movie is thinner than the paper on the wall. Basically, it chronicles a manhood crisis in the life of Hollywood agent Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven), who decides that his son, Ben (Daryl Sabara), must have a bigger bar mitzvah party than the son of a workplace competitor, Arnie Stein (Larry Miller). This won’t be easy, since Stein held his son’s festivities on an ocean liner (the sendup of bar mitzvah excess is very funny, as is the evocation of the shipboard splurge).
In his state of competitive madness, it doesn’t matter to the otherwise affable Adam what Ben wants; his son’s bar mitzvah is all about him. Wait, there’s more Him coming, with the arrival of an uninvited guest, Adam’s long-lost dad, Irwin (Garry Marshall, the super TV producer and father of “Steins” director Scott Marshall), whose grating presence ignites all of Adam’s long-repressed hostilities.
If Philip Roth were writing, he might have brought out the comic foibles, the tragic delusions, the libidinal twists among the three generations of Fiedler men struggling with morality, culture and cross-generational love and responsibility on the anvil of a bar mitzvah from hell. Television guy Mark Zakarin (“The L Word,” on cable) is no Roth: He keeps things clearly flat and primary, and the characters never become more than stereotypes. Marshall, famous for his Brooklyn accent and shrewdness (his most memorable movie performance came in Albert Brooks’s “Lost in America,” as the casino manager unamused by Brooks’s pleading for the money his wife had lost), makes Irwin a nominally decent but selfish, unsubstantial man, essentially a loser who fled the family three decades earlier because he just couldn’t face a lifetime as a square who puts on a suit, puts on a hat, leaves at 9 and comes home at 5. Now, 30 years later, he shows up as a haggard old hippie-type, arriving in a pickup with a goy girlfriend who calls herself “Little Bird,” or some such. Daryl Hannah is in the role, which demands little of her except some moonbat zaniness and a flash of swimming pool nudity.
And then there’s the issue of the ponytail. Too bad the movie couldn’t afford better special effects in the hair department. The phony pouf of protein clipped to Marshall’s skull looks like something peeled from the grille of an SUV after it roared through the heavily forested squirrel zone.
As for young Daryl Sabara as the 12-year-old in the middle of all this, he’s adorable, baffled, good-hearted, but it’s not what would be called a great performance. It’s unobjectionable. His is the movie’s point of view, as he recalls these events from the present in some recent past that, er, looks exactly like the present (no period details are attempted).
But the biggest disappointment in the film is Piven’s Adam. If you’ve seen this guy, particularly in “Entourage” but also in a number of his film roles, he’s always a kind of smarmy self-promoter, fast-talking, good at angles, quick with numbers, no hero or dominator but a kind of Sammy Glick with training wheels.
That’s the Piven we know and love. This film idealizes his character too much and thereby jettisons any case for serious respect: He’s a great father, he’s a great husband, he’s a great agent. He has no weaknesses. He coaches his son in tennis! Philip Roth would go: Zzzzzzzzz. And when you think of the great Jewish heroes in American literature — Augie March, Portnoy, David in “Call It Sleep,” even Yossarian in “Catch-22,” to name but a few — this bland caricature seems really a lost opportunity. Adam has no inner contradictions; he’s almost completely unself-aware — too virtuous to be interesting or compelling. And Piven was exactly the actor who could have made his flaws interesting and compelling. (We saw the evidence in the “Entourage” episode “Bat Mitzvah”: Piven’s character spends his daughter’s event scheming for company control, all the while a proud-father smile shellacked onto his face.)
By contrast, the strongest presence in the film belongs to Jami Gertz as Adam’s wife, Joanne. Possibly writer Zakarin is more comfortable with female characters (particularly if you know what the L in “The L Word” stands for), but somehow he’s able to make her more human and less idealized, and when she finally loses patience with the immature saint who is her husband, she has the movie’s best line — until Neil Diamond shows up.
I don’t mean to suggest that “Keeping Up With the Steins” is a failure, other than as a platform for Diamond junkies (best all-time song: “Cracklin’ Rosie,” and if you disagree with me, guess what, I don’t care). The movie’s pretty funny and it also has some nostalgia vibrations — so nice to see Richard Benjamin again (while remembering him in both “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint,” alas, I can’t help but recall a time when Jewish American stories really mattered), and the great actress Doris Roberts has a nice turn as Irwin’s first wife (i.e., Adam’s mother). But it could have been so much more.
Keeping Up With the Steins (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual innuendo, brief nudity and drug references.