An Old Joke with a New Twist
The sweeping aerial views of Manhattan that introduce Keeping the Faith set up Edward Norton’s directorial debut as a “New York Story.” And it is, to a degree, but more by implication than anything else, as the particular character of the city informs the particulars of the characters. More obviously, the city is a backdrop for the classic narrative of romance found, romance tested, romance regained. The representative New York of Keeping the Faith lies somewhere in between the hyperreal absurdity of NYPD Blue and the boutique-chic, antiseptic Manhattan of Friends: a warm, funny, confusing NYC where segregated neighborhoods overlap, and ethnic and religious boundaries solidify and dissolve between inevitably boundary-crossing human relationships, but no one gets seriously hurt.
Throughout the opening shots, Father Brian Finn (Norton) stumbles, drunk through blurry dissolves in and out of the gaudy city lights into an Irish bar. What could be more typically New York than a drunken Irish Catholic priest stumbling drunkenly into a bar, you might ask? Well, as the bartender, and the viewer, soon find out, this film is a knowing riff on an old joke, sometimes challenging, sometimes confirming stereotypical ethnic humor.
After Father Finn orders a beer, he begins to tell his story to the bartender (Brian George, Seinfeld‘s Babu) a Sikh-Catholic Muslim with Jewish in-laws (“appropriately complex” as a point-of-entry for a diverse audience) which goes something like: “My best friend’s a rabbi, I’m a priest, we both fell in love with our childhood girlfriend and now I’m a drunken mess because…” To which the bartender replies, “C’mon, a priest and a rabbi… I think I’ve heard this one before.” Yeah, it’s the oldest set up in the world, and yet, it seems, not so stale that the stereotypical implications of the premise can’t be exonerated, tastefully, with an exploration of what it means to be a Judeo or Christian spiritual leader in the 21st century, or how two such leaders with fundamentally distinct doctrines can maintain a friendship based on mutual respect. Not that these issues are really tackled in Keeping the Faith, but they are tickled, into comic situations and ambiguously optimistic sermons that sound like motivational stand-up routines. The fact that they are raised at all may signal the human needs that religion, without apocalyptic overtones, attempts to meet.
In this version of the priest and rabbi joke, the priest, Brian Finn, and the rabbi, Jake Schram (Ben Stiller) are best friends who grew up together on the Upper West Side with their Irish Catholic tomboy gal-pal Anna “Banana” Reilly. As Norton the actor cries in his beer at the bar, Norton the director flashes back to idyllic scenes of their childhood together, complete with baseball, trading cards (rabbi cards for Jake), and innocent adolescent rambunctiousness. All these flashbacks lead up to Anna’s eventual move to the west coast, after which the two boys apply themselves to learning the tenets of the respective faiths and becoming the hippest clerics on the block. And hip they are Father Finn drops lines at mass like, “There are no solo acts in Christianity, we’re gonna be the Fugees here, no Lauren Hills,” and “You all remember the seven deadly sins. A very popular film with Brad Pitt. You people have the ultimate cliff note.” The progressive Rabbi Schram restores the confidence of a Jewish lad with pre-bar mitzvah jitters by having him chant, “I love that I suck.” Despite the fact that most members of their congregations seem too old to get these references, the self-designated “God Squad” are very successful at pitching an “old world God with a new age spin,” though they do avoid trying to reconcile pantheistic new age philosophy with monotheistic theology.
But all these issues are pushed aside the moment that grown-up Anna (Jenna Elfman) steps back into Brian and Jake’s lives. Now a high-powered, corporate something or other, Anna’s swaggering, sexy, self-confidence magically turns both men into gangly 14-year-olds as soon as she steps off the plane (in slow motion no less). A bizarre love triangle inevitably develops between sexually frustrated Anna, sexually repressed Brian, and sexually anxious Jake, who is being squeezed by the “kosher nostra,” a gang of Jewish women from his synagogue trying to set him up with their daughters.
Norton externalizes his characters’ desires with conspicuous visual cues that ask you to identify with them: full-frame stills of photographs from Jake, Anna, and Brian’s childhood evoke a wistful nostalgia that keeps pulling the three together, despite their incongruous careers. Still, Anna is clearly ready to hook up with someone: her sexual tension is represented by her voyeuristic tendency to spy on the neighboring high-rise with binoculars, into an office conveniently inhabited by a cheeseball corporate guy cavorting with various female coworkers, with his tie around his head. The boys’s readiness is also conveyed by point of view imagery: during a garden outing, Anna, viewed through the gaze of Brian and Jake, is captured in freeze-frames, twirling like Audrey Hepburn, consummately adorable.
With understated, but effective, tricks like these, Norton establishes subjective states for his characters, as well as a convincing intimacy between them. The film does not, however, live up to its comic potential. Despite the screwy humor of Jake’s rabbi trading cards (“Wow, a Rabbi Schlomo Shnerson rookie card!”), redundant and annoying flashbacks slow the action, and unnecessary plot convolutions Jake’s mother Ruth (Anne Bancroft) suffers a climax-igniting stroke further hinder the pace of what could be a really funny screwball comedy. As Norton should know, good comedy thrives on brevity. On top of the film’s length (over two hours), Norton and Stiller have no comic chemistry onscreen most of their scenes together look like bad rehearsals and some of the ethnic humor is really overdone. In one scene, Jake goes on a date with an overly aggressive Jewish girl who proclaims, “Exercise is a religion to me,” and attempts to drag him, bodily, to her apartment at the end of the night. She is so obnoxious, and another Jewish date, high profile news anchor Rachel Rose (Rena Sofer), is so dull and humorless, that the Irish Catholic Anna seems like the perfect alternative to any of the Jewish women that Jake’s congregation wants to see him with.
Occasionally, the ethnic humor works, when not over the top. The high point of the film is actor Ken Leung, who turns in a surprisingly hilarious performance as Tony, a shrewd karaoke machine salesman, who sings “Jessie’s Girl,” in a fake Chinese accent, then turns the bogus accent off when he finds out that Brian and Jake are not easy marks. It is this type of self-parodying ethnic humor Leung’s put-on of an immigrant Chinese merchant, Stiller’s jests at Jewishness that make Keeping the Faith feel like a “New York Story,” with characters negotiating the wide gaps between their ethnic groups, and the less intractable differences between them as human beings. This is a fine line Norton and screenwriter Stuart Blumberg walk, and sometimes the stereotypes are less than ironic. In one scene that is more offensive than both Sister Acts combined, Rabbi Jake Schram brings in a black Baptist choir to spice up a traditional Hebrew song. Okay, the implication here is obvious “All black people have soul” but apparently not enough to warrant the black actors speaking parts, thereby negating any non-musical contributions that this charismatic bunch might offer to the staid synagogue, as they play Mr. Bojangles to Stiller’s Shirley Temple.
Apart from this scene, and the following one in which a horde of Jewish mothers shove their smiling daughters into the camera, Jake’s first-person point of view, Norton refrains from making any outward criticisms of religious or ethnic traditions. The film takes a tolerant “live and let live” attitude: if we can all learn to get along, and learn something from each other, things will works themselves out. And if our differences won’t disappear, they’ll just become less different. Thought the identities of the characters in Keeping the Faith are firmly rooted in their ethnic and religious distinctions, it is specifically the strength of those distinctions that is being addressed, as both viable identity structures and insecure footholds in a changing world. Rabbi Schram articulates these ideas in a sermon, saying, “We live in a really complex world where boundaries and definitions are breaking down, challenging us not just as human beings, but as Jews.”
In Keeping the Faith, the schism between humanness and religious or ethnic identity as in human and Jewish, human and Irish Catholic is smoothly resolved by a formulaic, Sleepless in Seattle-like ending, in which girl gets guy and everybody’s happy. But the questions still linger long after the predictable punchline to this old joke. Can men and women just be friends? What if the man’s a priest whose best friend the rabbi is her lover? Can Catholics and Jews really get along by way of karaoke? Could a priest and a rabbi possibly be this cool? I guess we’ll have to wait for the sequel.