The Austin Chronicle

Keeping the Faith

Rated PG-13, 129 min. Directed by Edward Norton. Starring Edward Norton, Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman, Anne Bancroft, Kryss Anderson, Lisa Edelstein, Ron Rifkin, Eli Wallach.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 14, 2000

Edward Norton, comic genius? Not quite, though this, Norton's first film behind the camera, is a self-assured romantic puffball that neither grates nor lingers too long in the memory. It's the archetypal date film, to be more precise, and, more important than that, it's a genuinely funny film, a little Woody Allen, a little Going My Way, and a whole lot of Jenna Elfman's mischievous, crinkly-nosed grinning. Keeping the Faith is such a disarmingly enjoyable film, in fact, that it nearly bypasses the drama (what there is of it) in its race to make viewers laugh. A minor complaint, that. If all there was to the film were Norton's pratfalls and Stiller's wise-ass-Jew schtick, that'd be enough. For such a slight film, it's consistently amusing: no easy feat for a first-time director. The premise is straight out of Jackie Mason: Brian Finn (Norton) and Jake Schram (Stiller) were childhood pals who fell in love with Anna Reilly (Elfman), the little girl next door. Separated at the tender age of 10 when Anna's family moved away from their hometown New York City neighborhood, both boys grew up to follow their respective faiths, with Brian becoming a Catholic priest and Jake in line to become his congregation's rabbi. They call themselves the “God Squad,” and spend their off-hours scheming to create a Jewish-Catholic community center (when not striding down the busy Manhattan streets in matching black leather jackets and cheerily waving to their assorted flocks). When Anna returns to New York on a business trip, both men begin to fall for her all over again, with the obvious impediments being a.) Brian's celibacy, and b.) Jake's unwillingness to marry a shiksa like his parentally estranged brother did. Norton's film (from a script by Stuart Blumberg) makes light of everything but the religious difficulties encountered by these two unlikely friends. You get the impression that Norton might have liked to cut loose a bit, toss in a few more barbs, but the pleasantly unantagonistic nature of the film works just as well. If nothing else, Keeping the Faith is an inoffensive religious comedy (not a particularly vast subgenre) that also manages to make a few pointed statements about intolerance (Bancroft plays Jake's intolerant mother) while keeping the gags coming steadily. It's an assured debut, and Norton, happily, is apparently a gifted comic. Fight Club offered only a hint of what the actor was capable of, comically speaking, and this film allows him to cut loose with everything from outright slapstick to subtle double takes and that patented wry observation he does so well. Stiller remains the most original comic around right now, wheeling from smirking self-indulgence to punctured pride in a heartbeat. His comic timing is impeccable, and often surreal. He's a Jewish parody of the Everymensch, howling and howlingly funny. Elfman, a gifted comic in her own right, glides through Keeping the Faith on a tide of perkiness. The role is woefully underwritten, but you don't really notice: She's so much fun to watch that it doesn't matter if she's really doing anything. Here's an actress who could turn a morning flossing into a blond comic masterpiece. The film falls short of being a classic screwball comedy, but Keeping the Faith's ingratiating sense of comedy is sporadically hilarious nonetheless. It may be fluff, but it's pretty fluffing funny nonetheless.

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