A deftly updated homage to the screwball comedy stylings Howard Hawks, George Cukor and Billy Wilder, "Keeping the Faith" acknowledges right away that its plot, about two men of the cloth falling in love with the same girl, sounds like a lame bar joke.
It opens with the fantastic and versatile Edward Norton ("Fight Club," "American History X") playing a spiritually conflicted -- and at the moment, completely sauced -- Catholic priest, pouring his soul out to a patient bartender. "So there's this priest and this rabbi, and they're best friends, see...," he slurs into his beer.
The rest of the story goes something like this: Ben Stiller co-stars as the padre's rabbi rival for the affections of the magnetic Jenna Elfman, a long-lost friend from their shared Brooklyn childhood who pops back into their lives 20 years later, all grown up, sexy, sweet and irresistible.
It's a gimmicky storyline to be sure, but even the best lame bar joke has never had me in stitches the way this whimsical and ingenuous romantic comedy did.
At first Elfman's return to New York as a West Coast workaholic on a business trip stirs up only an inkling of desire in these two faithful fellows -- who as energetic preachers with full of pulpit punchlines are both focused on "kicking the dust off our faiths." And of course, Norton has taken an oath of celibacy, which is something that has yet to bother him one bit, he gladly explains to his beautiful pal.
Stiller is in a different boat entirely. His whole congregation is trying to find him a wife, and every Jewish mother with a presentable, 20-something daughter corners him on Sunday mornings, attempting to schedule dates.
However, hanging around with the adorable Elfman -- cute and perky as always yet completely credible as corporate ball-buster -- soon stirs up old feelings that had only begun to percolate in the boys when she moved away from their neighborhood just prior to puberty. ("She was a magical cross between Johnny Quest and Tatum O'Neal in 'Foxes,'" Norton pines to the bartender in the opening scene.)
Facetiously hip (Norton and Stiller wear Armani leather jackets and shades with their clerical collar and yarmulke), sublimely nutty and surprisingly respectful of religious faith, this side-splitting comedy even manages to slip in some delicate, honest moments of emotional candor after Stiller and Elfman fall into bed and begin to wonder how his congregation would take it if they find out he's in love with a gentile. Then the movie cuts to a shot of Norton reading "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" and the belly-laughs are on again.
Already an undeniably great actor with remarkable range, Norton makes his directorial debut with this accomplished comedy and does such a superb job holding its capricious elements together, I can't help but wonder if that huge ego he's rumored to have might not be completely justified.
Despite a few forgettable flaws (like the poor transition from his drunken stupor to a sober voice-over during the intro), he gets just about everything right here. Not only does he employ often ribald, near-non-stop laughs without ever back-handing either religion, but he also insures the characters are charming enough to keep the audience captivated for 131 minutes (comedies are usually under 100 minutes) without the picture ever feeling indulgent.
"Keeping the Faith" is the first movie this year I wanted to watch again the minute it was over. What a great surprise.
Run time: 128 mins
In Theaters: Friday 14th April 2000
Box Office Worldwide: $37M
Distributed by: Touchstone Pictures
Production compaines: Spyglass Entertainment, Touchstone Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 69%
Fresh: 79 Rotten: 36
IMDB: 6.5 / 10
Director: Edward Norton
Starring: Ben Stiller as Rabbi Jake Schram, Edward Norton as Father Brian Finn, Jenna Elfman as Anna Riley, Anne Bancroft as Ruth Schram, Eli Wallach as Rabbi Ben Lewis, Ron Rifkin as Larry Friedman, Miloš Forman as Father Havel, Holland Taylor as Bonnie Rose, Lisa Edelstein as Ali Decker, Ken Leung as Don