Keeping the Faith
Screenplay : Stuart Blumberg
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Ben Stiller (Jake Schramm), Edward Norton (Brian Finn), Jenna Elfman (Anna Reilly), Anne Bancroft (Ruth), Eli Wallach (Rabbi Lewis), Ron Rifkin (Larry Friedman), Milos Forman (Father Havel), Holland Taylor (Bonnie Rose)
If there's one subject that Hollywood is generally bad at tackling, it is religion. The basic law of the Hollywood production machine is to create a product that appeals to the largest common base of people. It's okay to offend certain fringe groups because they probably don't go see movies very often anyway. But one must appeal to the masses, therefore it is difficult to commit to any one religious viewpoint in any meaningful way.
Having this in mind while watching Edward Norton's directorial debut "Keeping the Faith" adds an extra dimension to the film because it elucidates just how precarious a balancing act the film really is. Being the story of a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest who fall in love with the same woman, it dances and dodges around all kinds of deep moral, ethical, and religious issues and, amazingly enough, appears on the surface to deal with all of them without really touching any of them. "Keeping the Faith" is certainly more interesting than your standard romantic comedy, yet it is, first and foremost, a Hollywood product, and that necessitates a certain amount of distance from anything that might really make the audience think.
This story could be told any number of ways. Had Norton and screenwriter Stuart Blumberg wanted to, "Keeping the Faith" could have been a serious exploration of interfaith relationships in contemporary times. It could have offered a hard stance on tough questions. But, they chose to take a lighter approach, and on its own terms, it works. The film is quite funny and even touching, despite the patently false ending that ties everything up with a bow that is just a little too neat.
Norton and Ben Stiller star as Brian and Jake, best friends since their school years in New York. Brian grows up to be a priest, while Jake grows up to be a rabbi. Both are young upstarts in their respective houses of worship, and they both want to "shake things up" by being different. They even work together on a Jewish-Catholic community center that is meant to bring their two congregations together.
Things get complicated when an old friend they haven't seen in 16 years returns to New York. Her name is Anna (Jenna Elfman), and when they were in the seventh grade, Jake, Brian, and Anna were inseparable. However, Anna has grown up into a high-power, corporate businesswoman who also likes to have fun, and it is apparent from the start that both Brian and Jake are absolutely smitten with her.
Of course, both of them have complications. Brian's is the most obvious: as a Catholic priest, he has taken a vow of celibacy. Jake, on the other hand, is single and available and not celibate, and his congregation is even actively pushing him to find a woman to settle down with. The only problem is, that woman needs to be Jewish, and every mother in his synagogue has been parading her daughter in front of him. Jake's pressure is increased by the fact that his older brother has married a Gentile, thus creating a rift with their mother (Anne Bancroft).
As it turns out, Jake and Anna secretly fall in love, while Brian struggles with feelings of desire for Anna he has never had before. Jake and Anna's relationship is complicated by the fact that it starts off as fun and uncommitted, but both grow to the realization that it is more than that. Jake fears what his congregation and his mother will think if he comes clean about having fallen in love with Anna. And, because Brian and Jake are both in love with Anna, but Anna can only love one of them back, it is a foregone conclusion that this love triangle will result in Brian and Jake getting in a fight.
Essentially, "Keeping the Faith" brings up all kinds of questions about the role of religion in the modern age. It treats these issues with enough respect that the film is not offensive to those with faith, and it even has a few moments that are deeply moving. Unlike many comedies with religious angles, the point of this film is not to mock religion or those who hold to religious values.
Yet, it never really gets to the heart of the dilemma created by the plot because that would entail the denial of the classic Hollywood ending that results in some kind of couple formation. Because it is made clear that Jake and Anna are in love, the dictates of Hollywood filmmaking require that they wind up together. This is a bit awkward because it leaves Brian, the third wheel, somewhat adrift in its happy resolution, but even then the script manages to resolve the issue by essentially having Brian reaffirm his vows and his commitment to the Catholic Church while simultaneously accepting Jake and Anna's romance.
This does not, in itself, make "Keeping the Faith" a bad movie. In fact, it is really quite enjoyable. There are moments of true hilarity, such as one scene in which Brian and Jake are bamboozled by a bizarre karaoke salesman (Ken Leung). There are also touching scenes of human contact, especially when Brian goes to an elder priest, Father Havel (Milos Forman, who directed Norton in "The People vs. Larry Flynt), and finds to his surprise that Father Havel has also experienced the pains of falling in love with a woman. What is good about the scene is Father Havel doesn't offer some pat, easy answer.
Norton shows promises as a first-time director. His style is smooth and polished, if not particularly distinguished. Some of the slapstick scenes don't play very well, but overall "Keeping the Faith" is a good first effort. Although it glosses over most of the issues it raises, it still complicates the typical romantic scenario by playing with the possibility that religious values--which some 90% of Americans profess to hold in at least some capacity--can be incorporated into Hollywood films.
©2000 James Kendrick