Keeping the Faith (2000)
Directed by Edward Norton
Cast: Edward Norton, Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman, Anne Bancroft, Eli Wallach, Milos Forman, Rena Sofer, Holland Taylor, Lisa Edelstein, Brian George, Ron Rifkin, Ken Leung.
2000 129 minutes
Rated: (for profanity and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 15, 2000.
"Keeping the Faith," actor Edward Norton's directorial debut, is an ambitious romantic comedy that succeeds on the charm of the three principle actors, as well as in the surprisingly smart writing by Stuart Blumberg, a rarity in today's films. It is also a little rough around the edges, and far too long, in desperate need of at least a fifteen minute trim, which could effortlessly be done without any impact at all in the story or its effectiveness. Things can't always be perfect, and "Keeping the Faith" is far from it, but in terms of its pure sweet-naturedness, it is one of the better adult romances to come around the pike in a while, and more satisfying than the recent, overly slight "Return to Me."
Taking off from the old "the-priest-and-the-rabbi-walk-into-a-bar" joke, ever since childhood, Manhattanites Brian (Edward Norton) and Jake (Ben Stiller) have been best friends. As they grew up, Brian decided to turn to Catholicism and became a priest, while Jake, who is Jewish, opted to become a rabbi. As young teenagers, they were close buddies with Anna Reilly, a pretty tomboy whom they were devastated to see move away when her father got a job offer on the other side of the U.S. Switch forward fifteen years, Brian and Jake are elated to receive a phone call from Anna (Jenna Elfman), now a high-powered, workaholic businesswoman, who is going to be dropping into NYC on business.
Once reunited, it is just like old times for the trio, who, while their lives have taken them in alternate directions, remain compatible and close. Anna is intrigued in Brian's required celibacy, while, at the same time, he is starting to grow the first truly romantic feelings he can remember. Meanwhile, Anna and Jake fall in love, but decide to keep it a secret from Brian, so as to not damage their camaraderie. There are other obstacles in the way of their feelings, too, including Anna's planned departure back to San Francisco once her business deal is finished, as well as Jake's religion requiring him to marry a Jewish girl--something that Anna is not.
Unlike most romances, the outcome of "Keeping the Faith" is not immediately foreseen because the problems stacked against the characters are more serious and important than the usual films in the genre, and the way all of the plot threads are handled is thoughtfully done. Issues involving religion and personal beliefs are focused upon and never second-guessed, keeping in hand an open mind throughout.
Edward Norton, Jenna Elfman, and Ben Stiller are a match made in Heaven, each one complimenting the other in both the chemistry and talent departments. Norton and Elfman, especially, have a radiance about them, and it is a fresh change of pace to see Norton in something lightweight and conventionally enjoyable. In her best role to date (superior to 1999's "Ed TV"), Elfman has what it takes to be a delightfully engaging film actress, with all of the qualities that has made Meg Ryan one of the queens of romantic comedies. Finally, Stiller, in a role oddly reminiscent of the one he played in 1998's "There's Something About Mary," rounds out the trio, and is very good as a man who can't help falling in love with Anna, but who fears rejection from everyone in his religious community, including his loving, but set-in-her-ways mother (Anne Bancroft).
Nevertheless, "Keeping the Faith" can't help but occasionally step wrong. The opening fifteen minutes rely too heavily on slapstick, and it is only when the adult Anna arrives in New York does the film settle down and firmly find its frothy, yet involving, tone. This leads to the second, and most major quiff, which is that, for a frothy romance, the picture doesn't know when to quit. Appearing as if director Norton and editor Malcolm Campbell didn't want to part with a second of footage, the pacing grows to meander by the start of the final one-third, just when any normal film of this kind should be reaching its conclusion.
What finally decides the fate of "Keeping the Faith" is its utter likability, and well as in the relationship that is built between Brian, Anna, and Jake--you believe that they are best friends who care for each other very deeply because the actors are so effervescent in their performances. Due to their magnetism and winning personalities, you find yourself rooting for all three of them to find some sort of middle ground where they can all manage to be happy, without hurting the others' feelings. "Keeping the Faith" may not be a great film, but it sure is an amiable enough way to spend a few hours.
©2000 by Dustin Putman