Keeping Up with the Steins

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 10/31/06 11:22:53

"Oy. And ugh."
1 stars (Sucks)

Halfway through “Keeping Up With the Steins,” Jeremy Piven turns to the crew he’s hired to videotape his son’s bar mitzvah and, following some “kooky” antics from Gary Marshall, Piven tells them, “You want to cut out the unfunny stuff. It’s unusable.” You can probably see where I’m going with this.

“Steins” is the kind of dreadful dramedy that could only come from Gary Marshall, the king of saccharine unwatchables. Only, well, it didn’t come from Gary Marshall. It came from Gary’s son, Scott Marshall, who makes his feature directorial debut with a movie so notably awful that it seems like it’s gone out of its way to prove that the crappy fruit does not fall far from the crappy tree.

Working from a screenplay by Mark Zakarin, “Steins” tells the story of a family of very wealthy, very unlikable idiots who grow jealous over another family’s expensive bar mitzvah, setting out to out-spend their rivals at every turn. Which is a fairly loathsome premise for a comedy - let’s follow a couple of rich jerks around for ninety minutes while the movie tells us we should like them! (And this isn’t even including the potential for ugly stereotyping.)

The film intends to be sort of a Jewish “A Christmas Story” - an everyday kid gets swept up in a series of anecdotal misadventures and comes of age as an important date approaches - yet it winds up as an obnoxious collection of bad jokes and ham-fisted family melodrama. The “isn’t this family just like your family?” tone is rather insulting, as one would hope your family is nothing at all like this family.

And then, just to prove its own clumsiness, the movie just up and forgets its own premise. The first half of the movie details the rabid attempts by Adam Fielder (Piven, who plays a self-absorbed agent, because Piven is contractually obligated to play nothing else ever) to out-do Arnie Stein (Larry Miller, who can be funny in the hands of a talented director; he is not funny here), who spent half a million on his son’s bar mitzvah cruise; Adam opts to rent out Dodger Stadium and invite Catherine Zeta-Jones. But then young Benjamin Fielder (Daryl Sabara), who would rather just have a low-key family party, tricks his estranged grandpa (Marshall) to arrive a few weeks early, forcing the three generations of Fielder men to finally get along, just in time for Benjamin’s big day. When this happens, the script completely ignores Adam’s big-spending mania and focuses on what is supposed to be a tender family drama, so much so that by the end of the picture, you may very well wonder why the movie is titled the way it is. (If not for several shots of the Steins sulking in a corner during the finale, you’d forget them entirely.)

Marshall, as gramps, lays the schmaltz on thick, thanks to heart-to-heart talks with Benjamin and a subplot that has him fighting with Adam and possibly reconciling with his former wife, grandma Rose (Doris Roberts, who else?). Grandpa also teaches Benjamin what’s really important in life, cue the violins, and for a moment, we think we’re going to actually get a look at what a bar mitzvah truly means, not all this money-spending crassness. Ah, but that would involve actually developing the story and giving it depth, which is beyond Marshall’s capabilities. (We get a long lead-up to several chats about the reasons for the ritual, yet when it comes time to deliver, the movie balks.)

What we get instead, then, are a bunch of limp jokes (including a tiresome shot of Marshall’s naked ass, because nude old people = comedy!) and bland melodrama, accented by a screechingly unbearable narration by Sabara, who’s forced to deliver some of the clumsiest first-person writing in recent memory.

It all turns out alright in end, however, because Neil Diamond shows up, and what thirteen-year-old doesn’t love Neil Diamond?

Sigh. That’s how off the mark “Steins” is - it gives us Neil Diamond, but can’t decide if it’s a cool cameo or a punchline, so it doesn’t bother being either. The rest is a long slog of family cliché and idiotic coming-of-age yuks thrown at us with the subtlety of, well, a naked Garry Marshall.

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