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With: Ben Stiller, Edward Norton, Jenna Elfman, Anne Bancroft, Milos Forman, Ron Rifkin, Eli Wallach
Written by: Stuart Blumberg
Directed by: Edward Norton
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexuality and language
Running Time: 128
Date: 04/05/2000
IMDB

Keeping the Faith (2000)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Losing His Religion

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Edward Norton, one of our finest young American actors, makes his debut as a director with Keeping the Faith, a slight and uneven but very charming romantic comedy.

The TV ads for this movie make it look like a stupid slapstick moron fest. Ha-ha! His butt is on fire! Look at him douse it in the Holy Water! But it's not really like that. Most of those scenes come from a flashback at the beginning of the movie.

The story has Norton playing a Catholic priest named Brian, Ben Stiller as a rabbi named Jake, and Jenna Elfman as a high powered business woman named Anna. Brian, Jake, and Anna were all best friends in 8th grade until Anna moved away. So when she re-appears in their lives years later, things get complicated.

The movie starts with a drunken Norton showing up in an Irish bar run by an Indian (a similar joke occurs in the recent Return to Me) and pouring out his whole story. ("A priest and a rabbi?", the bartender says, "I've heard this one before...") The catch is that, according to their faiths, Brian can't marry at all, and Jake can only marry Jewish. Anna is an All-American blonde blue-eyed babe. So, even though this feels like a pretty standard Hollywood love triangle, it's not very standard at all.

Keeping the Faith is refreshingly honest about both its religions. It doesn't make fun of either one, and we even learn a few things about each. Eli Wallach is on hand as an older Rabbi in Jake's temple, and director Milos Forman appears as an older priest that Brian confides in. These two elder statesmen provide the anchor the movie needs to keep its religions from flying off into spoof.

I still swing wildly between liking and disliking Ben Stiller. I can't seem to tell how much of him is charming comedic actor and how much is vanity. I think he's wonderful in character roles, such as Zero Effect (1998), and the recent Black and White. I even liked him in There's Something About Mary (1998). But in this movie he acts as if he deserves the love of the girl, and comes across as aggressive instead of tender.

Norton on the other hand, is extraordinary once again. Though the role is slight, he proves his superiority in his deft handling of awkwardly written scenes (the screenplay is by first-timer Stuart Blumberg). If the dialogue stinks, he just throws in a pause here, or an "um" there, and it comes out sounding natural. The guy's a genius.

On the other hand, Norton's talent as a director remains unclear. Not only was he able to get Forman to play a role in the movie, he was also able to nab Forman's cameraman, Anastas Michos, whom he worked with on The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996). Keeping the Faith is filmed in New York and has a good sense of the city, and even includes Spanish and black characters. But even with that detail the film goes for that usual Hollywood homogenized "romantic comedy" look. Norton says in the press notes that he wanted to do an old-fashioned comedy like The Philadelphia Story (1940), which explains the look and feel. But somehow, that whole glossy thing just doesn't click with me. Although I love 1940's comedies as much as Norton, they tend not to translate well in terms of today's films. They end up losing emotional weight, as if it were scrubbed away. (Interestingly, Stiller has shown himself to be the better director with his dark and daring The Cable Guy from 1996.)

The movie, astonishingly, runs more than two hours (breaking the prime rule of romantic comedy) but it never seems long. Norton uses the time well to let us get to know all three characters, and give away some funny scenes to character actors, such as a hilarious scene in a music store with a clerk named Don (Ken Leung).

Keeping the Faith is an entertaining movie overall, but as a directorial debut of a great actor it's no Citizen Kane (1941), or for that matter, not even a Sling Blade (1996). Yet I had a good time and laughed a lot. It will make a good date movie, but not one that anyone will remember for any length of time.

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