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.