HAVE you seen the one about the priest and the rabbi? It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, and in a way, it is.
Keeping the Faith, directed by and starring Edward Norton with Ben Stiller and Jenna Elfman, is a romantic comedy that traces the relationship among three childhood friends who reconnect after years of being apart. Brian Finn (Norton) and Jake Schram (Stiller) have been friends since grade school and each has followed a call into ordained ministry: Brian to the Roman Catholic Church and Jake to Reformed Judaism.
When the other friend, Anna Reilly (Elfman), a successful businesswoman, comes back to New York on business, they meet and form an awkward and unusual love triangle. She’s single, beautiful, powerful and committed to her work.
Both Brian and Jake are attracted to her, but there are obvious problems: Father Finn is celibate, and Rabbi Shram should marry someone from his own faith. While the three of them sort this all out, we’re given a glimpse into the background of their lives and vocations, and here the film becomes interesting.
Anna comes from the world of high tech. With a cell phone or a headset permanently affixed to her ear, she has power, money and influence – but no time for a life. Her life is a series of hotel rooms, boardrooms and failed relationships. Fabulously successful, she’s incredibly lonely. Both Jake and Brian are popular clergy. They’re a new breed: cool, athletic, able to connect with their congregations in ways that are hip and authentic. But their personal lives are lonely and unfulfilled. Jake gets set up for dates by every mother in the synagogue; Brian’s explains his commitment to celibacy as a gift to God. But both of them are drawn to Anna. Jake and Anna do fall in love and a major part of the film concerns their developing relationship and their attempts to hide it. Sadly, the romantic complications take up the major portion of this film, which runs about 40 minutes too long. Norton, in his directorial debut, loses control of his material; his direction is clumsy, cliché- ridden, and he lapses into sentimentality. The acting is uneven: Elfman’s wide-eyed insouciance becomes cloying; Norton seems to disappear from his character, and Stiller’s schtick, although charming at first, runs out of steam, and by the end, the film spirals down into a bad comedy of manners. What’s unfortunate, for people of faith, is that the movie tells a positive and interesting story about religious life in North America. Both Father Brian and Rabbi Jake are able to make their historic institutions relate again to people of our time. Faith itself is given a fresh look while respecting the traditions. Also, the promise of a new and authentic kind of inter-faith relationship is portrayed in a positive light in this film. Too bad the film spends so much time going nowhere. It’s like a joke without a punchline. Peter Elliott is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, and a member of the board of directors of the Vancouver Film Festival.