Although there is nothing offensive about the film, there is nothing particularly amusing or enlightening about it, either.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

The thing is, when people go out to the movies, they usually have two or six or a dozen films to choose from, depending on the size of their community. But when people go to the video store to buy or rent a film, they have literally thousands of films to consider. It means a movie on disc has to be pretty good to warrant one's time and money. Given that Miramax's 2006 comedy "Keeping Up With the Steins" is only a middling motion picture at best, it makes the competition tough.

Mark Zakarin wrote and Scott Marshall directed this coming-of-age comedy in which both a son and his father learn about life and how to enjoy it. The son is Benjamin Fiedler (Daryl Sabara), a young Jewish boy who is about to experience his bar mitzvah. This, as you know, is a ceremony held in the synagogue to admit a Jewish youth of thirteen as an adult member of the Jewish community, after he has successfully completed a course of study in Judaism. It is a very big event in a Jewish boy's life, but to his father, the bar mitzvah party afterwards is much more important.

The idea is that Benjamin's father, Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven), is determined to give his son a bigger, grander bar mitzvah bash than his friends, the Steins, gave their kid aboard a cruise ship. The father completely loses sight of the point of his son's entrance into manhood, seized as he is in one-upping the Steins.

Adam is a Hollywood talent agent to whom money and splash and outward appearances are everything. Therefore, he lives in fashionable Brentwood, in Southern California, in a house the size of greater Los Angeles. His idea for his son's party is to rent Dodger Stadium, invite 612 guests, provide each of them with authentic baseball uniforms, and have Neil Diamond sing the national anthem.

Oddly, Jami Gertz gets top billing as Benjamin's mother, yet the film overlooks her most of the time. And while Benjamin narrates the story of his bar mitzvah, the film is not really about him, either. Instead, it's about the father, Adam Fiedler, and Adam's father, Irwin (played by the director's real-life father, actor and director Garry Marshall). It seems Irwin abandoned Adam and Adam's mother, Rose (Doris Roberts), twenty-six years earlier, after having vainly tried to cope with family life, and Adam has been trying to make up for what he has always perceived as his poor, neglected childhood ever since. Adam wants for Benjamin what Adam never received from Irwin, namely, money, security, and all the external trappings of success. Adam wants the bar mitzvah party to represent the ultimate achievement of everything he feels he never had.

Naturally, grandfather Irwin and grandmother Rose, who haven't seen each other in many years, come together at the bar mitzvah (actually, two weeks before because Irwin shows up unexpectedly early, and Rose is living with the family). And just as we would expect, the grandfather is as eccentric and lovable as Hollywood can make him, now leading the life of an overage hippie on a Native-American reservation, with a sexy vegan girlfriend who goes by the adopted name of Sacred Feather (Daryl Hannah).

The moviemakers want their film to be warm, sweet, and charming, but I found it routine, predictable, and sometimes angry. The father is a complete jerk, shallow and materialistic. Everything about him says "Me, me, me." Conversely, the grandfather is an affectionate coot who teaches his grandson the really important things in life, like how to fish, play basketball, and flirt with girls. The story practically ignores the mother and the grandmother, and the script gives the kid no real story of his own. There is even an obligatory "Graduate" scene and an ostensibly moving closing speech to make things complete.

I dunno. Perhaps if I had seen this film in a movie theater with a big audience that found it funny, I'd have laughed more. As it was, I smiled maybe once. "Keeping Up With the Steins" wants to be about big, meaningful life lessons for all of us, but it seems mostly about imitating every other family-reunion picture that's come before it. Although there is nothing offensive about the film, there is nothing particularly amusing or enlightening about it, either. It's just sort of out there, trying to be cute and clever and failing to be anything but ordinary.

I can't imagine the picture being transferred to disc any better than this. The transfer preserves most of the movie's original 1.85:1 theatrical-release ratio, and the Buena Vista video engineers reproduce it in a high-bit-rate, anamorphic widescreen. The object delineation is firm and the colors are solid, but apparently the original print was rather bright because the hues are often so bright or so deep and dark that they don't always look natural. Still, they are extremely clean and detailed, and the vividness of the display is certainly eye catching.

There is not much to say about the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound except that it works as advertised. The movie is almost entirely dialogue driven, so about all the audio has to do is duplicate it, which it does with ease. Just don't expect much in the way of deep bass, wide dynamics, or surround effects.

At least the filmmakers thought this was a great film, great enough for it to warrant two separate audio commentaries, one with director Scott Marshall and writer-producer Mark Zakarin and another with director Marshall and his father, Garry Marshall. After listening to a few minutes of each, I came away thinking that maybe they should have just let Garry Marshall do one commentary by himself; he's a very good talker. After those items are six deleted scenes, about seven minutes' worth, that the viewer may play with or without commentary from the director and the producer. The final item is an eight-minute featurette, "Keeping Up With the Steins: Behind the Scenes," narrated by the director and offering no more enlightenment than an extended trailer might provide.

Things wrap up with fifteen scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at seven other Buena Vista titles; English and Spanish spoken languages; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
The keep case informs us that "Keeping Up With the Steins" follows in the tradition of movies like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." What it doesn't say is that like all good situation comedies, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" had at its center an appealing main character. But at the center of "Keeping Up With the Steins" is the Jeremy Piven character, who is not at all sympathetic. In fact, as I've said, he's a jerk. And it's awfully hard to care about any of the other characters because they are all such innocuous caricatures. It adds up to a disappointing party.


Film Value