Friday April 14, 2000
A mainstream production that's nonetheless made with considerable care and imagination, "Keeping the Faith" also offers more than a little humor and marks an astute directorial debut for actor Edward Norton.
Arriving just a week after "Return to Me," "Keeping the Faith" is another romantic comedy with a potentially smarmy premise that's all the more rewarding because of the challenge the material presented. Norton and screenwriter Stuart Blumberg introduce us to lifelong friends Jake (Ben Stiller), a rabbi, and Brian (Norton), a priest, and drop into their midst Anna, their best pal from eighth grade at Manhattan's P.S. 184. The two men haven't seen her for 16 years, when she moved to California with her family. What we end up with is an "Abie's Irish Rose" for the 21st century.
Both young men are well-established in their work. Brian is content with his life's choice, and the innovative Jake is in line to assume the post of chief rabbi at a large, upscale temple. It is true that Jake is in need of a wife to cinch the promotion, and he's constantly besieged by the eligible young women of his temple. When Anna, now a corporate executive charged with shaping up the New York office, arrives at the airport in the stunning form of Jenna Elfman, both men are transfixed.
At first it's like old times, but the three are no longer kids. A spark ignites between Jake and Anna, who tell themselves they can handle a discreet fling without falling in love. And Brian, unaware of their affair, tells himself that he's comfortable with his celibacy and is in no danger of falling in love with Anna himself.
Of course these people are kidding themselves, but Blumberg deftly works out their increasingly complicated emotional dilemmas. Anna, who's not particularly religious, is probably Catholic and certainly not Jewish. She is not exactly the ideal candidate for a rabbi's wife, and while Jake's mother, Ruth (Anne Bancroft), adores Anna, she has not spoken to Jake's older brother since he married a Gentile.
A thicket of incidents, comic and serious, most assuredly ensues, but Blumberg to his credit makes some worthwhile points: that there are times in our lives when we sell people short by not having faith in their capacity for understanding, that a religious life is a choice that must come from deep within the individual and is subject to constant reaffirmation, and finally that religion ought to unite people rather than divide them.
Significantly, Jake, Brian and Anna are all busy, committed people, but Anna is a self-acknowledged workaholic who's just beginning to wonder whether she's gotten her priorities straight. Blumberg and Norton show affection for Jews and Catholics and respect for their beliefs and customs.
"Keeping the Faith" is the kind of wishful make-believe that takes lots of star power to put over, and all three leads have charisma to burn. Anna in particular must have a blazing impact to throw two dedicated men of the cloth into a tailspin, and Elfman exudes beauty, sex appeal and self-confidence made irresistible by that sure-fire combination of wit, intellect and directness.
Meanwhile, Stiller and Norton never lose our sympathy as Jake and Brian wrestle with questions that will affect the rest of their lives, not to mention their friendship.
The stars have terrific support, most crucially from Bancroft, whose Ruth is wonderfully forthright and astringent, and from Eli Wallach and Milos Forman, wise ecclesiastical counselors to Stiller and Norton, respectively. Ron Rifkin, Holland Taylor, Rena Sofer, Brian George and Ken Leung round out the excellent key supporting players.
Cinematographer Anastas Michos and a raft of top craftspeople present a Manhattan so glowing you want to grab the next plane for New York, and Elmer Bernstein's lovely score sets the mood for sophisticated romance. "Keeping the Faith" actually does that on its own, and works out its plot with more honesty and less contrivance than you would have thought possible for an expensive entertainment conceived for wide appeal.
Keeping the Faith, 2000. PG-13, for some sexuality and language. A Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Spyglass Entertainment production. Director Edward Norton. Producers Hawk Koch, Edward Norton and Stuart Blumberg. Executive producers Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum and Nathan Glickman. Screenplay Stuart Blumberg. Cinematographer Anastas Michos. Editor Malcolm Campbell. Music Elmer Bernstein. Costumes Michael Kaplan. Production designer Wynn P. Thomas. Art director Chris Shriver. Set decorator Leslie E. Rollins. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes. Ben Stiller as Jake. Edward Norton as Brian. Jenna Elfman as Anna. Anne Bancroft as Ruth.