This bar mitzvah is a real family affair

Special to Newsday

May 12, 2006

Good-natured and as broad as a barn door, “Keeping Up With the Steins” might have been titled “Battle of the Bar Mitzvahs” – conspicuous consumption providing most of the better jokes in this almost-a-sitcom, big-screen comedy.

How do you compete with a “Titanic”-themed bar mitzvah held on a Cunard liner and featuring a Kate Winslet look-alike, breakaway icebergs and a Viennese table the length of six lifeboats? More important, why compete with such ostentatious excess? Because the fathers involved are Hollywood agents, whose place on the food chain seemingly depends on how decadent they can make a religious celebration. Thirteen-year-olds are simply collateral damage.

Directed by first-timer Scott Marshall and starring his father, producer-director Garry (who is not, despite years of playing one, a Jew), “Steins” stars young Daryl Sabara as Benjamin Fiedler, who is far more worried that 1) he won’t be able to recite from the Torah and 2) his favorite girl (Brittany Robertson) won’t attend his bar mitzvah, than he is about whether it will be held at Dodger Stadium and feature Neil Diamond. So he creates a diversion by inviting his grandfather, Irwin (Marshall), who arrives unexpectedly with a ponytail, a hippie girlfriend named Sacred Flower (Daryl Hannah) and the type of personality that sends households into tailspins.

The humor, as one might expect, is both pedestrian and predictable. Ben’s dad, Adam (Jeremy Piven), is still angry that Irwin abandoned him and his mother (Dolores Roberts). So even as Irwin charms everyone around him, including Adam’s wife (Jami Gertz), the friction remains consistent and the threat to the bar mitzvah palpable.

Is there any question that family members will become reconciled and that real values will replace the profligacy rampant in Brentwood, Calif.? That there’s so much milky sweetness in this film may explain why Larry Miller’s Arnie Stein – of those Steins with whom everyone is trying to keep up – is the best character in the movie: Unrepentant, morally debauched and delightfully spiteful, he is, at least, a consistent force in a movie full of contrivance and confection.
Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.

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