KEEPING THE FAITH (Edward Norton, 2000)

In a Hollywood film of the thirties, two childhood best friends in the same New York neighborhood would take different paths in adult life, one becoming a priest, and the other becoming a gangster. A descendant of such a film as Angels with Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz, 1938), Keeping the Faith changes things a bit for a new century. One of the boys still grows up to become a priest, but the other one grows up to become a rabbi. Mull this one over: rabbi as gangster-substitute. Or is it, now, gangsta-substitute?

A Jewish man, Stuart Blumberg, wrote this ecumenical comedy, and a Roman Catholic, the film’s star, Edward Norton, directed it, and for all I know they also have been best friends since boyhood, like their two spiritual protagonists, Rabbi Jake Schram and Father Brian Finn. It is certainly the case that the film’s title bears a double meaning, with each of the religious characters keeping his faith, and both these guys keeping faith with their friendship. What’s not to like about this? My Jewish father’s best friend was, like Finn, an Irish-American Roman Catholic; I can relate!

Unfortunately, Norton’s film carries a lot of excess baggage. This baggage consists of four failures: one, the film suffers from the Hollywood disease of our day, too much plot; two, entertainments to which a message is attached, even so pleasant a message as here, always appear more dead than alive; three, the film is farfetched and, as a result, incomprehensible; four, the film is also too timid. There is some hilarious stuff in the film, including Father Finn’s parody of Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man (Barry Levinson, 1988), and his inebriated interruption of a bar mitzvah; but the movie goes on too long, only to reach an unsatisfactory conclusion. As with all “feel-good” movies, if one has a scrap of sense one ends up with a bad headache.

Actually, the friendly twosome are also part of a threesome, with their other musketeer, as the rabbi’s mom calls her, being the successful businesswoman with whom they both fall in love. Neither knows about the other’s sexual interest in Anna Riley, a spectacular, warmhearted beauty. One of them, Rabbi Schram, is bedding with her but stopping short of the marriage that she desires because she isn’t Jewish. (Jake believes that Mrs. Schram is estranged from his brother because he married a shiksa.) On the other hand, the padre sins only in his mind, although he is gathering up gumption to declare his honest intentions to Anna and bolt from his collar. Brian’s sexual reticence is an example of the film’s timidity. Absent sex between Brian and Anna, it is impossible to believe that Brian believes that Anna is secretly in love with him, and the scene in which she is about to disclose to him her love for Jake but, impatient, Brian aborts her declaration and delivers his own, along with unwanted kisses, is at the level of a TV sitcom. The script scrambles for a way to cover this gaping hole of Brian’s having misread Anna’s feelings, offering at least two lame explanations. One is that Brian mistook the “reflected glow” from the Anna-Jake partnership as Anna’s passion for him; the other is that Brian set himself up for this “fall.” Meanwhile, Jake is in danger of losing his position. In the end, though, everything is painlessly, and incredibly, resolved, triggered by Jake’s mother’s near stroke, after which she tearfully confesses to Jake that she had acted wrongly with his brother. It turns out that Anna has even secretly begun the process of converting to Judaism. People foolishly keep too many secrets from one another in this film, and all these secrets seem to tumble out in the film’s final reel.

Given the stakes involved and given Jake’s position, it is inconceivable, even in a comedy, that his reluctance to marry a Gentile is mostly explained in terms of personal and family history. Apparently the makers of the film felt that the issues of Jewish communal survival and cultural integrity would be too much of a downer in a film into which they drag almost everything else. But absent these considerations, Jake’s moods and manners strike the viewer as empty and gratuitous; given that he is in love with her, Jake just seems the perfect fool not to want to marry such a wonderful person as Anna. The couple break up, but only to reconcile, with a little helpful intercession by Father Finn, who, after a bout of humiliation, proves himself a good sport about his lost chance at man-woman love. The whole thing resolves, then, into a lighthearted soap opera.

The film’s spirited message of American pluralism is underscored by a remark made by the local bartender whom Father Finn visits when he needs to be ministered to. The remark is, in fact, a disclosure of the man’s ethnic and religious diversity. The bartender describes himself as a half-Punjabi Sikh Catholic Muslim with Jewish in-laws. He adds, perhaps because Jenna Elfman is in the cast, that he is “reading Dianetics.”

Elfman, who plays Anna, is the principal reason for seeing the film. Tall, lovely, warm, funny and (unlike ditzy Dharma, the role she played on TV) highly intelligent, Elfman is, here, a dream of an actress, a softer Rosalind Russell. Her Anna, a dream of a woman, could make both Jake and Brian fall in love with her just by being herself. This is one area in which the film doesn’t strain credulity. (There is a marvelous dream sequence in which, stretching her leg after a sweaty joint run, Brian seems to be having sex with her.) Ben Stiller, the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, is adequate as Jake, but Norton the director indulges Norton the actor way too much. Through most of the film, I wanted to wring Brian’s neck just to keep Norton from hogging so much of the footage. The late Anne Bancroft, though, is excellent as Jake’s mother. (Born Catholic, Bancroft was, of course, Jewish by association, being married to Mel Brooks forever.) As an older priest with whom Father Finn swaps tales of near sexual encounters, Milos Forman, who directed Norton in (I’m told) the surly The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), proves he is as lousy an actor as he is a filmmaker. But, as an elderly rabbi, Eli Wallach is a pleasure to watch.

I can recommend the film, then, for a few of the performances.

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