ARTS

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May 16, 2006

Jeremy Piven not kosher as family man in Steins

It’s hard to describe the bar mitzvah craze that hit my middle school. People who come from towns with only one or two Jewish families aren’t usually shuffled from one ceremony to the next until they can recite a good chunk of Hebrew from memory. And usually, anyone who has been to more than three or four can’t help but notice that it’s not always all about the ceremony—it’s about the party. So when Keeping Up with the Steins promised to explain the phenomenon of half-million dollar parties for 13-year-olds, I was sure someone had hit an untapped gold mine. Anyone who thought of the idea had to be able to make an amazing movie, right? Right?!

I was wrong—very, very wrong. Keeping Up with the Steins is essentially a five-minute gimmick dragged out for two hours. The film is badly written, filled with characters that are two-dimensional at best and stereotypes at worst. Even scenes of San Vicente joggers didn’t make it any better for this L.A. native. And let’s not forget the after-school-special of an ending, something about finding the true spirit of family—you know the drill.

After witnessing the Steins’ Titanic-themed bar mitzvah, Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven) becomes obsessed with putting on an even bigger, better bash for his son. Armed with grim determination and a party planner (the talented Cheryl Hines from Curb Your Enthusiasm) the Fiedlers set out renting Dodger stadium, hiring Neil Diamond, and generally having their lives taken over by details like appetizers and where to seat Catherine Zeta Jones. It’s a celebration that turns into the kind of nightmare only Brentwood, a suburb of L.A., could conjure. With everything relatively under control, the Fiedlers are thrown into a panic when Adam’s long-lost hippie father shows up two weeks early, complete with a trailer and a girlfriend (Daryl Hannah) half his age.

Piven, so good at playing that train wreck of a human being you might know as Ari Goldman from Entourage, plays a film agent once again. While this would seem like a slam dunk for Piven, it may, in fact, be the source of the problem. Entourage’s Ari devotes himself to being the kind of scum-of-the-earth power broker who would sell his family to get Adrian Grenier’s Vince a movie role. Dammit, that’s good television. Fiedler is a cross between the soulless agent you love to hate and a sympathetic family man who just wants the best for his son. Melding the man and the monster can be done, but the script isn’t savvy enough to hold both sides of Adam Fielder, and Piven doesn’t manage to find a compelling medium.

It doesn’t help either that Piven has absolutely no chemistry with his onscreen wife Joanne (Jami Gertz); I half-expected them to retire to matching twin beds at the end of the night. The best scene in the entire movie shows Piven getting some bad news, calmly shutting himself in a car, and completely losing it while all sound is blocked out. But that might very well have been Ari instead of Adam. Watching bottled-up rage is what family comedy is all about—doing your best and having it all fall apart anyway. While Keeping Up with the Steins may have gotten the second part right, there’s not nearly enough emotion to drive this movie. Piven comes off as boring—not devoted enough as either a movie agent or a family man to make an impression on the audience.

For a supposed comedy, Keeping Up with the Steins manages suspiciously few laughs. The main character, Benjamin Fiedler (Daryl Sabara) narrates the film with a predictable, horrifyingly slow style. Garry Marshall, as Benjamin’s free-spirited grandfather, brings some welcome dynamism at first, trying to teach young Fiedler the real meaning of being Jewish. This, at least, includes some good exchanges, such as:

“What’s the best thing about being Jewish?”

“I don’t know. Bagels and lox?”

“Not a bad answer.”

Marshall is strong enough to carry the role of kooky mentor for a while, but ends up repeating the same things over and over. He never seems too aware of the emotionally turbulent relationship he has with his son.

In the end, this movie never tries to go beyond what you could see in the trailer. After careful consideration, I think this movie must exist because of accumulated I.O.U.s to Garry Marshall. Marshall’s son, Scott, is the director. How else do you explain otherwise decent actors signing onto a sinking ship?

Maybe I was hoping for too much, but there are better (mediocre) movies for your money. It’s not a surprise that one good idea isn’t enough to carry a full-length feature film. However, that doesn’t make it hurt any less.