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It's No Mitzvah

"Keeping Up With the Steins" is a bad idea somehow made worse.


There's out of touch, and there's "Keeping Up With the Steins," one of those unfortunate times when a bad premise combines with incompetent handling. The handler is Scott Marshall, whose sense of judgment is so stricken he has allowed his own father, longtime movie and television director Garry Marshall, to prance around for extended screen time flaunting his bare behind. Marshall is over 70. If nothing else, this movie made me think there should be an age limit imposed on the display of certain body parts.

This is how inept a movie we are dealing with: "Keeping Up With the Steins" casts Jeremy Piven as an aggressive, successful Hollywood agent, and he is totally perfunctory and boring. Anyone who subscribes to HBO knows this is quite a feat. Piven has for a number of seasons played that exact character on the hit television series "Entourage," and he's been fantastic at it. Most people cite him as the best thing on an otherwise infantile show. Rumor has it he's basically playing himself. How could anyone screw that up?

The movie has provided Piven's Adam with no less an inconsequential son, one Benjamin (Daryl Sabara). An unusually inert youngster, Sabara is the lead but has been given nothing to do other than look like a sitcom kid. He simply sits around, eyes wide with bewilderment, much like his audience. If nothing else there's a lot to gape at. Father, son and mom Joanne (Jami Gertz) have just witnessed the Titanic bar mitzvah of a grade-school friend of Ben's, which featured life-size re-enactments, theme food and a famous rapper. The pressure is on to top, or at least equal, their all-out, big-money spectacle.

I wish I could report a reason given why we should care about the quest for such a ceremony by a wealthy family in Brentwood, but the story is simply assumed to interest us, and we, Jew and gentile alike, are thrown in with hardly a nibble of appetizing preparation. Then again, "Keeping Up With the Steins" isn't really about keeping up with the Steins. It's about exploiting the suburbanite ethnicity of families like the Fiedlers to get people to show up to an essentially meaningless movie.

The real conflicts in the movie are the kinds of things you find in episodic television, and they feel alternately cramped and adrift here. Ben has invited his estranged grandfather, Irwin, (Garry Marshall) and his vegan girlfriend (Daryl Hannah) early. Dad doesn't like Gramps because he walked out on Grandma (Doris Roberts) a long time ago, and Ben feels the tension will keep Dad off his back about the party. Now it's time for Dad and Grandpa to square off; for Grandpa and Ben to bond; for Mom and auxiliary females to fuss in their frilly outfits; and for the day of the big event to finally loom, with everything on the verge of falling apart.

Yet if "Steins" were in fact a television show, at best it'd be relegated to Saturday night. Most scenes are awfully slow and empty of interest. Rhythm and timing are nonexistent. These are comedy's essential ingredients, outside funny jokes, but even those are woefully lacking. It's not that there are jokes that aren't funny. It's that you question whether they are jokes after all, or just botched dialogue. Far into the movie, Gramps yells at a guy picking his nose in public, and that wakes the audience up for a few minutes. Other than that scene, and a few moments of uncomfortable chuckling, the small theater I saw it in sat, or suffered, in silence.

Early during this chugging, creaking wreck of a project, we are made aware that it will ultimately be the vehicle for the redemption of Ben, who is to find out the true meaning of his journey into manhood. Here is a character of zero value in a movie of even less faith pushed into the most predictable of contrivances. The situation is old-fashioned, banal and contemptuous of its audience's intelligence. And yet, in an unintentional statement of great consequence, it is the high point. (PG-13) 98 min. * S

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