"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.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman