If you were to use some kind of strange atom-splitter to divide John Cusack into two actors, you might end up with Ben Stiller and Edward Norton. Stiller would embody Cusack's edgy, neurotic, fast-talking, self-doubting side, and Norton the sweet, earnest, boyishly charming side. Put the pieces down in the grand ballroom of a Borscht Belt hotel circa 1947, and you might end up with something like KEEPING THE FAITH, Norton's messy, if only intermittently entertaining, directorial debut.
Norton is Brian Finn, a sweet, earnest, boyishly charming priest who has a problem. He's competing with his best friend, whom he's known since childhood, for the affection of the "third Musketeer" of their childhood trio, Anna Reilly (Jenna Elfman), "a cross between Jonny Quest and Tatum O'Neal in FOXES," now a high-powered businesswoman.
If this premise sounds like any of the old "priest and a rabbi" jokes that are growing grey beards of their own, well it is. Indeed, the film even starts out in a bar -- an Irish one of course, even if the bartender IS a Sikh/Catholic/Muslim with Jewish in-laws from New Jersey. By now, you should be getting a taste of how embarrassingly, excruciatingly awful the first hour of KEEPING THE FAITH IS. As for ethnic stereotypes, well, how obnoxious can a Jewish screenwriter make New York Reform Jews seem in one overlong 129-minute movie? Plenty obnoxious. Irish Catholics don't fare much better, nor do Asians. Only Italians are spared, and that's perhaps only because THE SOPRANOS takes care of that angle, thank you very much.
In screenwriter and Norton buddy Stuart Blumberg's universe, Jews are coarse, crass, materialistic, and so devoid of spirituality that the Harlem Gospel Choir is required to make the audience feel their prayers. It's a characterization David Duke would applaud. In Blumbergland, pushy Reform Jewish mothers chase rabbis as husbands for their daughters. Perhaps Blumberg has seen the first half of A PRICE ABOVE RUBIES too many times, for in MY neighborhood, it was not rabbis towards whom Jewish mothers pushed their daughters, it was surgical residents. But in BlumbergWorld, which like the interfaith dance hall and karaoke bar that Brian and Jake open, is an inverted reality anyway, Ben Stiller's Rabbi Schram is the Hottest Hebraic Hunk in New York. But alas for our circumcised friend, the only girls he seems able to find are loud, pushy, self-involved, sexually voracious Jewish Princesses with apartments paid for by Daddy (Lisa Edelstein)....or empty, self-involved Jewish career women (Rena Sofer). To be fair, Blumberg does include some genuinely funny lines, such as calling a fierce group of Jewish mothers with single daughters "The Kosher Nostra", or Brian lamenting that his life is turning into "Melrose Priest." But Blumberg reveals his contempt for his own Jewish roots, and an almost complete lack of concern with the Catholic elements of his story.
The script attacks strong, fierce Jewish women, but enter strong, fierce, self-involved career woman Jenna Elfman, and all bets are off. Perhaps it's the contrast of her silky-blonde mane vs. the wild, frizzy, ethnic tresses of the Jewish girls, or her lithe, lissome figure contrasted with the overly aggressive, fertility-goddess curves of the Jewish girls, but THIS ballsy broad is everything Jake ever wanted. This is in no way a criticism of Elfman's performance, for once again, as she did in last year's EDTV, she demonstrates a girl-next-door, natural likeability that Julia Roberts' deer-in-the-headlights gaze can't begin to approach. She's Fanny Brice with long legs; Bette Midler with less swagger, a sassier version of Jean Arthur. Indeed, it's only once Elfman appears on the scene that the picture becomes at all tolerable.
Ben Stiller is, as usual, insufferable -- a mass of tics, edgy, jerky motions, and self-loathing. Norton is genuine, sensitive, likeable and believeable as the young priest whose attraction to this young woman calls into question everything he's come to believe and accept about himself and his calling. He even shows a surprising knack for physical comedy, and a throwaway "Rain Man" bit is priceless. While Stiller comes across more like Buddy Hackett at the Nevele than a man of the cloth, when Norton preaches to his flock about faith, you believe him. And when he exchanges significant glances with Anna after an evening out with another of Jake's failed dates, the chemistry between them positively throbs. So when Anna ends up with Jake, and professes to be in love with him, it's disappointing. It seems all wrong. I realize that Blumberg wasn't trying to write THE THORN BIRDS, and Norton wasn't trying to direct it, but the longing is all in the wrong place here.
For all that Brian seems to practically glow in the relentless, romanticized New York sunshine, Norton directs with a surprising generosity towards his supporting cast. The amazing Anne Bancroft, as Jake's mother, is warm, tough, vibrant, and yes, sexy. Despite the script, and despite Jake's perceptions, this is no Livia Soprano Mother from Hell. Ken Leung, in the "Bronson Pinchot Steal a Movie In Five Minutes" role, is hilarious as a karaoke salesman. And Brian George, as the aforementioned Sikh/Catholic, etc., bartender, transcends the inherent silliness of his role, touchingly embodying the bartender-as-confessor of so many lame jokes.
But ultimately, it's Norton the Director who frustrates us most. It's clear that Norton wants to be a less depressive Woody Allen. He wants to paint a loving picture of New York as a colorful, vibrant, multi-ethnic, tasty stew of colors and sights and sounds. But KEEPING THE FAITH smacks of the kind of self-indulgence for which Tony Kaye unjustly attacked him during the AMERICAN HISTORY X editing fracas. Norton is such a prodigious talent, it's difficult to watch him fall short in this clunky effort. There's a wonderful film to be made about Jews and Christians and faith and duty and sacrifice, but this isn't it. Cast Paul Rudd opposite Norton in an adaptation of HEAVEN HELP US, Herbert Tarr's hilarious 1968 novel about a young rabbi and his Episcopal priest friend, and perhaps we can talk. But Eddie....boychik....dollink...listen to me....this time you've bitten off more challah than you can chew.
KEEPING THE FAITH official site