Keeping the Faith

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Edward Norton

REVIEWED: 04-24-00

Edward Norton made a huge splash in the movie world with his 1996 debut Primal Fear. Since then, he's been doing prestige work, from singing and dancing for Woody Allen in Everybody Says I Love You to portraying dark corners of the psyche in American History X and Fight Club. So why did he choose for his directorial debut a romantic comedy with a broad slapstick frame? Probably as a favor to his friend, screenwriter Stuart Blumberg. But given Norton's huge reputation as an acting talent, Keeping the Faith inevitably becomes a test of his ability to elevate light comedic material from behind the camera, as well as in front of it.

The movie's premise reads like the opening to a bad joke: A priest and a rabbi open a bar. Seems Norton's character, Father Brian Finn, and the rabbi, Jake Schram (Ben Stiller), were childhood friends with a girl named Anna (Jenna Elfman). After Anna moved away, Brian and Jake grew up and took their respective vows, doing their best to shake up their stodgy faiths with new ideas. Now Anna's back in New York, and her old friends are both wrestling with more-than-friends feelings for her as they prepare to turn an abandoned loft space into an interfaith nightspot.

Like the two lead characters, who juggle spirituality and worldly concerns on a daily basis, Keeping the Faith has a split personality. On the one hand, it's a wacky comedy with pratfalls, sight gags, and of-the-moment cultural references. On the other hand, it's a straight-faced and rather earnest exploration of what members of the clergy owe to their God and their congregation.

These more serious considerations are not at all treated in a light comic style. And although that change of tone causes the film to exhibit signs of schizophrenia, Norton's decision to treat the problems of his characters seriously is refreshing. Even if Brian and Jake's crisis of faith is more about symbolism than concrete religious belief, at least there is an acknowledgment that these things ought to matter to these people, and that therefore they ought to matter to us.

Norton has a long way to go as a director. When he has the dialogue participants in a two- or three-shot, he's OK, but his editor Malcolm Campbell is often forced to cut together conversations from mismatched bits of film because Norton didn't provide usable coverage. And though his framing device is distracting and unnecessary, he does get great performances from Stiller and Elfman, something not every director has been able to do. While unable to elevate either the comedic or the dramatic side of the story to unexpected heights, Norton nevertheless manages to communicate his enjoyment and engagement with both. A little technical training, and he just might have a second career.

--Donna Bowman

Full Length Reviews
Keeping the Faith

Capsule Reviews
Keeping the Faith

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