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Keeping the Faith   C

Touchstone Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Edward Norton
Writer: Stuart Bloomberg
Cast: Ben Stiller, Edward Norton, Jenna Elfman, Anne Bancroft, Eli Wallach, Ron Rifkin, Milos Forman.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

Edward Norton is one of the most gifted young actors working today. He has the ability to project a sincere innocence (forget about American History X for a moment) with an almost undetectable hint of bad boy craftiness (remember his Oscar-nominated turn in Primal Fear?). He slips into each role like it's a perfectly fit glove, and he often amazes us when we least expect it. With Keeping the Faith, Norton slips into the director's chair for the first time -- and although he shows promise as a director, it's a glove that he might have to grow into.

In the world's longest joke involving a priest and a rabbi, Keeping the Faith introduces us to two New York guys who have been friends since childhood. There's Jake (Ben Stiller), the smart and funny rabbi, and Brian (Ed Norton), the cool and witty priest. Both of them are striving to bring their religions into the 21st century by making it hip and fun, and their sermons are considerably more entertaining than they have any right to be.

Their little lives are in for a change of pace when their childhood friend Anna (Jenna Elfman) comes back into town on business. She's grown up to be a successful workaholic, so dedicated to her work that she and her cell phone are virtually inseparable. But she promises that she'll make time for her two old buddies -- both of whom are awe-struck with what a beautiful woman she has become. Huh...I wonder who's gonna fall for her first? And which one will she fall for?

As you can see, the plot is your typical formula romantic comedy -- with the added twist that the two guys are a priest and rabbi. Of course, their faiths present obvious problems when they do indeed fall for Anna. Jake, whose mom (Anne Bancroft) is always setting him up with nice Jewish girls, is expected to marry interfaith and anything outside of marrying a sweet Jewish girl is a big no-no. Brian's problem is more obvious -- he's a priest and can't marry or have sex, period. Bummer. But what do you think will win out in the end -- love or faith?

I won't spoil any of the other plot complications or major gags, since I think those of you who are going to see it will enjoy it more not knowing much. As long as you're expecting a routine romantic comedy (one that at a running time of 129 minutes is about 30 minutes too long), you might actually like it. I enjoyed it on some level, but it irritated me because it could have been so much better.

First off, Norton and Stiller are terrific, as usual. Jenna Elfman is absolutely radiant, and you can see how these two guys could fall in love with her. Too bad her character is only skin deep -- she's lovable in a goofy, superficial kinda way, but we never get a sense of who she really is. There's a scene where a crying Anna asks Brian, "I know I have spirit on the outside, but on the inside am I spiritually empty?" Well, I'd have to say yes. Elfman's character is underwritten, and it's a shame because Elfman does so much with what little she's given.

Keeping the Faith is mildly amusing most of the way through, but its laughs are few and far between. There's a lot of excess fat that should have been cut. C'mon, Norton, we know you're in love with everything you shot -- many director's are -- but you gotta learn that editing out the unnecessary material will usually strengthen your film. Another thing that irritated me was that the movie tries so hard to convince us that these two guys are totally committed to their faiths, only to have them willing to abandon them for the love -- or is it lust? -- of one woman.

In the end, the above-mentioned gripes -- along with the sheer predictability of the plot and dull stretches -- keep me from recommending what is otherwise is a decent romantic comedy with good performances from the leads.

Review published 04.21.2000.

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