Keeping the Faith (2000) **3/4
Directed by Edward Norton. Written by Stuart Blumberg. Photography, Anastas Michos. Editing, Malcolm Campbell. Production design, Wynn P.Thomas. Music, Elmer Bernstein Cast: Ben Stiller (Jake), Edward Norton (Brian), Jenna Elfman (Anna), Anne Bancroft (Ruth), Eli Wallach (Rabbi Lewis), Ron Rifkin (Larry Friedman), Milos Forman (Father Havel), Holland Taylor (Bonnie Rose), Ken Leung Don), Brian George (bartender) et al. Produced by Hawk Koch, Norton and Blumberg. A Touchstone release. 129 minutes. PG-13 (delicate sexual setups)
Edward Norton is an excellent, versatile actor who has successfully avoided becoming stereotyped. This goes for this film too, where he plays a Catholic priest. And where Norton, in his first seating on a director's chair, has the tricky task of directing himself.
The results are OK. Not great, but still acceptably comedic-farcical. The script is pure feelgood Hollywood. You are always conscious that you are watching, and listening to, a movie.
In their teens, New Yorker schoolmates Brian, Jake and Anna were inseparable. Then the girl's family moved away. Cut to some 16 years later. The two men never ceased being best friends. Brian (Norton) is now Father Brian, a Catholic priest. Jake has become a rabbi. Both see each other all the time, even cooperate on projects. They are modern fellows, hep, hip and big hits with their congregations in New York's Upper West Side. (Jake's is noticeably upscale).
Anna, now a corporation executive in California is equally successful in her line of work. She goes back East for an indeterminate stay, to improve the efficiency of her company's New York office. She and the men meet for the first time in ages. The moment they see her at the airport they are stunned. The trio resume their old companionship.
Now here's the catch, and the movie's "raison d'etre" : both males fall in love with her, which means that they have a Big Problem --Brian because he is a priest, Jake because Anna is a "shiksa," a non-Jewish female.
While. of course, Brian cannot possibly get married, Jake knows that he should if he is to get promoted. In his synagogue, parents, and especially mothers, find him a most eligible catch for their daughters. Jake dates young women, with humorous results. But his attraction to Anna keeps growing. They become secret lovers, while Anna's relationship with Brian is such that the priest believes she feels unbrotherly love for him. What a mess!
Scenes and sequences more amusing than pathetic ensue, some directly involving the three principals, others colorfully peripheral.
I confess that I was constantly distracted by questions of height. When the three are seen together at the airport, it is obvious that Junoesque Anna is taller than Brian who is taller than Jake. But this keeps changing all the time. Take a reception attended by the Anna-Jake twosome. Within seconds the man goes from equal height to taller to less tall, and so on. There must have been hours spent on the sets placing boxes under Jake's feet, changing camera angles and perspectives, re-changing them.
Other aspects are less questionable, notably the funny ones. Such as a thirteen year old boy whose voice is breaking preparing for his Bar-Mitzvah. It's a scream and a screech. Such as the inevitable cell-phone gags. Or salesman Don whom the two clergymen visit for a Karaoke set. The young man switches from Asian English to New York accent in a flash, not to mention his singing performances. Or the irruption in the synagogue of a black choir, another device by Jake to shake up traditionalism. My favorite, seen early in the movie in a pre-flashback situation, is when a drunken Brian confides his troubles to a barman. The latter, a Sikh with a multi-national, multi-ethnic family background has the best and most humorous bar-person role I can remember. And so it goes.
On the negative side, the Anna character was uninteresting and left me cold. The film entertains, but while its comedy works the romantic part (as in "romantic comedy") is unconvincing. Jake, in a variety of ways, plays up too much to his congregation. The happy ending is a tacked-on cop-out. And the common wisdom that comedies have to be on the sorter side is ignored, to the story's detriment and creation of some yawns.
On the whole, however, "Keeping the Faith" is most watchable.