KEEPING THE FAITH (Touchstone Pictures)
And they say miracles don’t happen. Produced and directed by actor Edward Norton, religion in this movie is treated as a normal, healthy expression of everyday people’s lives. In fact, a young rabbi and his long-time friend, a priest, are portrayed as likable, basketball-playing dudes.
Jake Schram (Ben Stiller) is the upwardly mobile young rabbi and Brian Kilkenny (Edward Norton) is the happily committed priest. Their friendship is solid enough for them to collaborate on the creation of a Manhattan-based community center where they can hold “interfaith rumbles.” Plans are well in progress when an old friend, someone they haven’t seen since eighth grade, travels to town on business. It’s Anna Reilly (Jenna Elfman) who’s metamorphosed from being every guy’s best friend – a cute tomboy – into a confident, attractive career woman.
This is where the plot progression fails. The invigoratingly down-to-earth spiritual tone is put on the back burner while Anna and Jake secretly become a hot item and spend most of their time coupling. Brian, unexpectedly pierced by one of Cupid’s arrows, declares his love to Anna who tearfully shares that she’s in love with Jake…who just wants to keep the relationship “simple.”
The storyline’s fusing of man and the divine is taken up again at movie’s end with a surprise twist that brings the movie almost full circle. Too much time is wasted, though, on the let’s-just-talk-sex part of it when there’s a vast audience out there patiently waiting for fresh material. For example, the synagogue and church scenes make religion seem immensely approachable, a rarity in movies. Brian jokes around with his parishioners, reminding them that congregants usually skip out of the services right after communion rather than just before. Jake still collects the bearded “Heroes of the Torah” trading cards and jokes about the “kosher nostra,” the overly-enthusiastic Jewish mother-in-law wannabes. It’s religion in the concrete, not in the abstract, in the context of characters who make no apologies for their faith.
Who’s The Biggest Shmuck? would have worked as another title for this film. The young rabbi is too spiritually superior to ask his gentile lover to convert to Judaism, while the priest doesn’t ask Anna if she’d like to learn the catechism. Here’s a weird one: Jake uses the word “Jesus” as an expletive. (Rated PG-13: light profanity; sensual kissing scenes)
(Written by C.E. Chambers and published by “The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition,” April 25, 2000.)