Keeping the Faith (2000): Edward Norton’s Feature Directing Debut. Romantic Comedy, Starring Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman, and Norton Himself

A valentine to New York’s racial, religious, and cultural diversity, Keeping the Faith, actor Edward Norton’s well-shot feature directorial debut, is a schematically constructed romantic comedy about an unusual triangle: a rabbi and a priest who fall in love with the same femme.

Grade: B-

This verbose comedy is inspired by numerous love triangles, from The Philadelphia Story to Broadcast News, and other quintessential Big Apple movies by Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky. Though lacking these chestnuts’ wit, depth-of-feeling and star charisma, pic benefits from a contemporary texture and from pleasant performances by its central trio: Ben Stiller, Edward Norton, and Jenna Elfman.

Of the current cycle of romantic comedies (and practically every studio is releasing one this season), Keeping the Faith is arguably the most accomplished–a strong word-of-mouth could turn it into a popular date movie for the twentysomething and thirtysomething crowds.

Ideological and commercial considerations march hand in hand in Keeping the Faith, a touchy-feely movie in which tensions between tradition and modernity, love and friendship, career and marriage are all too smoothly and easily resolved before the end credits. This should come as no surprise for scripter Stuart Blumberg, Norton’s Yale pal and an investment banker before turning to filmmaking, must have studied a lot of classic romantic comedies in preparation for his unsubtle crowd-pleasing confection.

The first act, which is too cutesy for its own good, unfolds in the mode of Woody Allen’s ’70s comedies. Narrated by Brian, it reconstructs the boisterously happy childhood of the protagonists as seven graders, until Anna moves out of the neighborhood, which breaks the hearts of both Jake and Brian.

Story proper begins when the mature Anna (Elfman) unexpectedly calls Brian (Norton) to announce her arrival in New York, and he and Jake (Stiller) rush to the airport to greet her. In the intervening years, Brian has become a priest, Jake a rabbi, and Anna a driven exec addicted to her cell phone. Script conveys the feel of ambitious, overconfident youngsters, all idealistically committed to their calling, who suddenly realize that something major is missing from their lives.

The first hour chronicles how the trio conduct their professionally-dominated lives. Highly motivated and perfectionist in his work, Jake experiments with “unkosher” ways in rejuvenating the old religious practices by bring a black gospel choir and encouraging group meditation at his congregation. He is a most eligible Upper West Side bachelor who goes on a series of dates, arranged by members of his temple anxious that he marries a Jewish girl. One of highlights is provided by a date with a fit athlete, Ali (Lisa Edelstein), in a scene that’s based on slapstick comedy.

Several blocks away from Jake’s temple is the Catholic church where Brian introduces his own innovations. A conscientious priest, he takes active part in his community, demonstrating good command of Spanish and empathy for its needy residents.

Brian and Jake’s solid friendship is threatened, when Jake and Anna realize they are attracted to each other and consequently engage in a wild affair without ever bothering to tell their best friend. Falling for Jake deeper than either she or he had anticipated, disrupts Anna’s previous priorities and it also confuses what seemed to be Jake’s stable life. In the film’s emotional climax, a tearfully heartbroken Anna rushes to Brian in the middle of night to confess about the secretive affair–only to be shocked by Brian’s candid revelation of his long-enduring love for her.

The whole yarn is rather predictable, and the audience is always ahead of the characters’s dilemmas and resolutions, which is a major problem. What helps swallow this harmless, none-too-snappy Jewish-Gentile, religious-secular souffle is the colorful milieu, the fact that the trio are depicted not as larger-than-life but as down-to-earth individuals, and, most important of all, the gallery of character actors that decorates the saga.

Anne Bancroft brings authority to the role of Jake’s overly concerned (though not stereotypically domineering) mother, who’s alienated from her older son, because she could never accept his Gentile wife. Eli Wallach is cast as Rabbi Lewis, an elder rabbi who functions as a peacemaker between the temple’s more traditional members and jake’s unconventional methods. Holland Taylor commands as an elegant temple member, anxious for Jake to date her rising TV anchor daughter (Rena Sofer), and in a specifically tailored part, helmer Milos Forman shows up as Father Havel, Brian’s human boss, who confides that despite rules and restrictions, he too had fallen in love for several women in his life.

In its effort to convey a multi-cultural New York, pic also panders to the viewers with such secondary characters as an Indian bartender of mixed blood (Brian George), who offers a sympathetic ear to Brian’s cris de coeur, and an eccentric Asian salesman (Ken Leung), who at the yarn’s flippant ending performs karaoke with Jake and Brian on stage.

Of the central trio, the most commendable performance comes from Ben Stiller who carries the film on his shoulders. Elfman, of the TV show “Dharma and Greg,” is likeable, but lacks the wits and magnetic charisma that Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, or Katharine Hepburn would have given to a similar role in Hollywood’s heyday. In the most demanding, but often thankless and bland role, the gifted Norton acquits himself honorably.

For a first effort, Norton directs with decent assurance. Strong technical support from the likes of lenser Anastas Michos, designer Wynn P. Thomas, costumer Michael Kaplan, and composer Elmer Bernstein give the film a polished veneer, making it far more enjoyable than its diagrammatic, overly long script had any right to expect.