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Keeping the Faith

Director: Edward Norton
Cast: Edward Norton, Jenna Elfman, Ben Stiller, Anne Bancroft, Milos Forman, Brian George

(Touchstone Pictures; 2000)

Short on Faith

The directorial debut of actor Edward Norton, Keeping the Faith wastes his considerable talents and those of his co-stars on a script that cannot hold many surprises for anyone who has been to the movies in the last quarter-century.


Jake (Ben Stiller), Brian (Norton), and Anna (Jenna Elfman) are chums in junior high school, three musketeers separated only when Anna’s family moves from New York to California. Several years later, Jake’s a Rabbi, Brian’s a priest, and Anna’s a workaholic businesswoman who looks them up during an extended trip back to the city. Sparks begin flying between Jake and Anna, but (yawn), he’s afraid that both his mother, Ruth (Anne Bancroft), and his congregation will condemn him for dating a non-Jew. He and Brian are known as “young rebels” of their faiths, so he’s already somewhat in trouble with the more conservative congregation members. Meanwhile (stretch), Brian confronts for the first time the temptation to break his vows, with Anna, unaware of the affair she has begun with Jake.


If, right now, you’re thinking you can predict every beat of this romantic comedy, I assure you, you’re correct. Ironically, a key point in the film focuses on Anna’s chiding Jake that he should have more faith in his congregation’s ability to accept his unorthodox choices. After leaving the theater, I couldn’t help thinking someone should have told the filmmakers to have faith in their audience to accept characters who spill out over cookie-cutter outlines. But the film instead keeps everyone in his or her place, fretting over misunderstandings that would be resolved if the characters would sit down and talk to each other honestly and intelligently. And yet, for all the fretting, these misunderstandings are eventually reduced to nothing by the ease with which they’re resolved, which means that the story and characters are likewise reduced. We want to see these people struggle with decisions; we want to know they’re important. If they’re not, why tell us this story?


The film misses multiple opportunities to show these struggles. At one point, Jake mentions an important conversation he apparently had with Rabbi Lewis (Eli Wallach), a sympathetic elder in his synagogue, as having helped him make a decision. If it’s so important, why haven’t we seen it? The same question applies to a scene between Anna and Ruth, which takes place off camera. Since we don’t see this discussion, a later change of mind by one of the women appears (temporarily) unmotivated. Omitting this exchange keeps something Anna is keeping from the two men a secret from the audience as well. But when the secret is revealed, you might think this is something that she has no reason to conceal (and a pretty obvious reason to disclose). This whole subplot-line is yet another instance where the film sacrifices logic to make its characters misunderstand one another.


Or, take the “boy is stupid-boy loses girl temporarily” scene (please). This scene is filmed so that Jake and Anna rarely appear in the same shot (when a film’s storytelling works, you might be carried away by it and less apt to notice curious technical choices like that.). Here the fight, which would be painful and emotional if we had been made to care about the two lovers, merely reminds us that no connection between them has been believably established. If we don’t feel their anguish at parting, there’s no reason to worry whether or not they will get back together again (of course, as noted, there also isn’t a whole lot of suspense about that).


Stiller (of whom, I confess, I’ve grown really tired lately, and who should stay away from love triangles after this movie and Reality Bites) and Elfman do not convincingly convey anything more complex than generic conventions. They fall in love, have a crisis, and make their way toward a happy ending for no other reason than because the film is a romantic comedy. Norton is actor enough that he could take Brian to the places he needs to go in communicating his spiritual and career crisis, but he is denied a visa by Stuart Blumberg’s screenplay. Now, it may be argued that because Keeping the Faith is a comedy, I shouldn’t expect it to grapple with the issues of life. But if the movie is going to raise topics about which most people have strong beliefs one way or another, and on top of that, ask them to care about characters’ decisions concerning these topics, then it has an obligation to deal with such topics truthfully.


A young and supposedly hip Rabbi, Jake is still under his mother’s thumb and those of his congregation. Another of the many questions the film never answers is, if he is to be a spiritual leader, why don’t we see more qualities of spirituality or leadership in him? Jake seems to be a fine youth counselor — he has some nice moments helping a boy prepare for his bar mitzvah — but his sermons, like Brian’s, have more of stand-up comedy routine in them than any real moral authority. Also never dealt with is the fact that he is distressingly ready to enter into a “relationship” with Anna when she claims all she wants is his friendship and as she puts it, to “jump” him once in a while. And he is just as quickly ready to reject her when she wants something more. Another actor might be able to play against the actions of his character, to show us that Jake’s head and heart are at war. Stiller never does, and Jake never gains my sympathy as a result.


Brian is equally volatile, or so it seems. He’s a Catholic priest who is suddenly ready to renounce his vows, willing to give up the faith to which he has devoted his life for a woman. This might be a fine idea for a dramatic or comedic predicament: we might identify with Brian, who is asking Anna for love, and so, risking a lot (as a priest much more than the average person). Now add that Anna rejects him in favor of his best friend, and that Brian realizes that this best friend and Anna — who happens to be his other best friend — have been keeping a secret from him. There’s a lot of stuff to deal with there. But the movie tries to wipe away the pain such revelations would have to cause like a bead of sweat. This trivializes the characters. The most serious question Brian faces — is his faith weak if he is so easily tempted? — is raised but never resolved, not even as unsatisfactorily as the Jake-and-Anna storyline.


So, the film fails both in its potential for drama and for comedy. Virtually every scene is predictable, down to some of the specific jokes. A running gag concerns Jake and Brian’s frustration with Anna’s ever-present cell-phone. When she and Jake are walking down the street and it rings, it takes but a moment’s thought on your part to register the mailbox on the corner and know that he is going to pluck it from her hand and toss it inside. I admit I laughed in some places — one inspired moment has Rabbi Jake bringing a Harlem gospel choir to liven up his services — but the laughs came with no affection.


There’s nothing wrong with treating people of any faith, or treating their faith itself, with irreverence: Radio Days and Oh, God! are perfectly wonderful examples of films that do so. But if a film asks me to believe that its protagonists are men whose religion is so important to them that they’ve devoted their lives to it and that abandoning (or even reevaluating it) is a matter of some concern for them, then that movie had better give me a few moments showing how and why that faith is so important to them. You see, I’m not going to take it on faith.

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By Josh Jones
31 Dec 1994
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.
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