Movie Review By Casey McCabe
"Keeping the Faith" is an attempt to tell the world's longest Priest and Rabbi joke, and praise Allah, at least it's not a bad one. It stars Edward Norton as Father Brian, Ben Stiller as Rabbi Jake, and Jenna Elfman as secular temptation Anna in this isosceles love triangle. Norton also produces and directs the film, based on an original screenplay by Stuart Blumberg.
If anyone were to say "stop me if you've heard this one" the movie would end almost immediately. Unless, of course, you'd never dream a hip young idealist would blow fresh air into a stodgy old religion, that a Jewish mother could execute paralyzing guilt, or that a vow of lifelong celibacy might be harder to pull off than it sounds. If there is a higher power at work here, it's the immaculate doctrine of the Romantic Comedy, which holds that best friends fight and forgive, that love knows no boundaries, and that any character as absolutely cute-as-a-bug as Jenna Elfman's is not going to be left, hurt, disillusioned and alone at film's end. But Norton is nothing if not relaxed in his directing debut. Whether it's taking a whack at slapstick or tugging on a heartstring, he seems to know exactly how far to push his luck.
The film opens with a barroom scene that blatantly winks at the film's jokey premise. Then via flashbacks we trace the story to its sunny adolescent roots, when Jake, Brian and Anna were inseparable friends and the Upper West Side was their playground. Anna's family moves to California. Jake and Brian remain best friends while each pursues clerical careers in this of all modern times and in Manhattan of all irreverent places. But they do look good in black, and as far as priests and rabbis go these guys are living like rock stars. And that's when Anna reenters their lives, now a long-legged, high-powered, cellphone-toting financial services dynamo, but still, somehow, the free-spirit that both men agree is the best woman they've ever known. Now come the tests of both friendship and faith. A #2 pencil is not required.
Norton does many nice things in front of and behind the camera, including giving Stiller the better part. But Elfman is the key to pulling this off. If Anna is too sexy she becomes a visible and thus avoidable temptation. If she's not sexy enough, there's no flammable chemistry. I think Elfman is destined to be typecast for her sheer adorability: subversively enticing to men and non-threatening to women. I hope she doesn't fight it. It's pretty rare thing.
Yet Anna is not the main love interest in Norton's movie. Going strictly by screen time, favorable lighting and worshipful camera angles, that honor goes to the island of Manhattan. Like Woody Allen before him, Norton directs with the mind and eye that anything east of the Hudson River is sadly pale and irrelevant.
If you're going to "Keeping the Faith" for the big laughs, be aware that most of them are served up in the thirty-second commercials that try to sell the movie as "There's Something About Mary, Mother of God." Uproarious it's not. But it is a pleasant enough diversion that in the end leaves us questioning nothing.
© 2000 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 4/12/00
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