Jeremy Piven, Jami Gertz, Daryl Sabara, Garry Marshall, Doris Roberts
|Keeping Up with the Steins" is an "AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW" film...It's the type of film critics love to hate and, more importantly, hate to admit they actually enjoyed. Centering on the life of Benjamin Fiedler (Daryl Sabara of the "Spy Kids" films), "Keeping Up with the Steins" is one of those gentle, easygoing, feel-good comedies that do average box-office only to later find life on DVD. Benjamin is the son of Adam (Jeremy Piven), a high-powered entertainment agent, and Joanne (Jami Gertz), his loving and more grounded wife.
The plot of "Keeping Up with the Steins" is incredibly basic and, dare I say, not that essential to the film itself. Adam was once in the same agency as Arnie Stein (Larry Miller), whose son has his Bar-Mitzvah a couple weeks prior to Benjamin's. To call this Bar-Mitzvah party excessive would be an understatement, though one can't help but chuckle at the concept of a "Titanic" themed Bar-Mitzvah party knowing how, in fact, the whole "Titanic" deal actually ended up.
But, I digress.
Adam becomes determined to outdo the "Stein" Bar-Mitzvah, complete with a rented out Dodger Stadium, celebrity appearances, a national anthem from Neil Diamond and, well, you get the point.
Are you getting the creeps yet? Admit it. You're thinking to yourself "This sounds awful." You're thinking "God, not another one of those feel-good teen comedies." I can feel you detaching from this review all the way over here in Indiana.
Worry not, "Keeping Up with the Steins" takes an old idea and brings it to life thanks to marvelous performances across the board, intelligent decisions by director Scott Marshall (Garry's son), and a genuinely strong chemistry between all the players involved.
"Keeping Up with the Steins" won't, in fact, be winning any film-making awards. Where this film succeeds is the same exact place that many of Steve Martin's recent films have failed..."Keeping Up with the Steins" spends more time focusing on the relationships between the characters, the natural feelings, the humor that develops between them, and largely avoids excessive histrionics, inappropriate special effects, cheap humor and poking fun at its characters.
In many ways, "Keeping Up with the Steins" reminds me of three films I absolutely enjoyed. The first, "Angus," starred Charlie Talbert, Kathy Bates and George C. Scott in one of the last decade's smartest and most underappreciated teen films about growing up, chasing dreams and being yourself. The second, "Keeping the Faith," is my most watched film outside those two years in the cast of "Rocky Horror Picture Show." "Keeping the Faith," smartly directed by Edward Norton, perfectly blended romance and religion in an easygoing, intelligent romantic comedy. The final film which came to mind during "Keeping Up with the Steins" is, oddly enough, "The Ringer," a recent film starring Johnny Knoxville. "The Ringer" was a surprisingly intelligent and human comedy that trusted the inherent comic nature of its situations enough that it avoided turning any of the characters into a caricature. The end result was a heartwarming, often hilarious film that gave Knoxville an unexpected hit this past year.
"Keeping Up with the Steins" doesn't force its characters into comic situations so much as it finds the comic situations in their everyday lives. While Marshall does, at times, have difficulty balancing the film's light comedy with those occasional "authentic" moments that seem mandatory in this type of film, generally "Keeping Up with the Steins" feels fresh even when you know it's not.
Sabara, who also provides some narration in the film, offers a steady, subdued performance as Benjamin. Too often, this benchmark of a Jewish male's life is played for laughs. The laughs are obvious and easy, but Marshall finds them more in Benjamin's everyday situations. Sabara, meanwhile, provides the film with its needed connection to the audience. It's nearly impossible to watch "Keeping Up with the Steins" and not, by the end of the film, truly care about young Benjamin.
Likewise, Piven again proves himself one of today's more underrated comic actors. Here, Piven is asked to be a masterialistic agent, loving father, loyal husband, protective son and, finally, wounded child. These scenes are both heartwarming and funny, not because Piven plays them for laughs but because Piven's character is so convincing throughout.
As his wife, Jami Gertz offers her best performance in years. This "relationship" between Adam and Joanne works because Piven and Gertz's chemistry shows the dynamic of "partnership" in action.
As there always are in films such as this one, there are side stories. Some work incredibly well, while others feel pointless and incomplete.
On the "incredibly well" side, we have young Benjamin deciding to invite his grandfather (played by Garry Marshall), who abandoned Adam and his mother (played by the wondrous Doris Roberts) over twenty years ago and living on an Native American reservation with the young, attractive Sacred Feather (a scene-stealing Daryl Hannah). I'd almost forgotten how marvelous an actor Garry Marshall can be...his scenes with young Benjamin are tender, sweet and heartfelt. His scenes with the young Sacred Feather, which could have easily been a caricature, instead come off sincerely, humorously and, yet again, respectfully.
On the flip side, a side scene of the family being filmed for a Bar-Mitzvah movie feels awkward, unfinished and unnecessary. Several times, it appeared that we were headed towards a Grandma/Grandpa reunion while Sacred Feather hits it off with a younger film-maker. Then, suddenly, the film crew disappeared until the end of the film and the film re-focused on a more sincere note.
Additionally, while the scenes with the Steins were initially funny, they became tiresome by the film's end. With a slight and refreshing variation, however, director Marshall makes an interesting choice in developing the relationship between the two teen boys, Stein and Fiedler. The end result is that "Keeping Up with the Steins" truly does focus on young Benjamin's transition to manhood and doesn't compromise this vision for the sake of a few laughs.
Because "Keeping Up with the Steins" is a teen comedy, a family film and, ultimately, a feel-good film it is inevitable that all's well that ends well by the film's end. Yet, because Marshall chose the intelligent route of trusting his characters and finding comedy in their relationships, the "happy" ending doesn't feel manufactured or forced. Instead, it feels like young Benjamin is, truly, transitioning himself to manhood much thanks to parents who truly, truly love him, a grandfather who wants to make up for lost time, friends who care as only friends can care, and because Benjamin is a good kid making healthy choices with positive results.
Sometimes, when I go to a film I don't want to be blown away. I don't want the razzle dazzle. I don't want to laugh hysterically, cry uncontrollably or have to think so hard my head hurts. Sometimes, I just want to sit there and be so engrossed in the characters that I laugh, I cry, I feel good and, perhaps most importantly, I come home feeling better about life.
"Keeping Up with the Steins?" It's a feel good film.
Sometimes, that's enough.
|© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic