"Keeping the Faith" is about a rabbi and a priest, but as Edward Norton says early in the film, "Trust me, you haven't heard this one."
Well, you have.
Norton plays Brian Finn, a Catholic priest whose best friend is rabbi Jack Schram (Ben Stiller). In junior high school the two friends met Anna Reilly (Jenna Elfman), a dream girl that, as Brian describes her, "was a cross between Johnny Quest and Tatum O'Neal in 'Foxes.' "
Anna moved away, breaking both boys' hearts, but 16 years later, as "Keeping the Faith" opens, she has just called Brian to tell him she's coming back to New York for an extended stay. Her visit will test their friendship, not to mention Brian's vow of chastity. From here, "Keeping the Faith" hews pretty closely to the rules of romantic comedy, including an ending viewers will see coming down Broadway.
"Keeping the Faith" opens promisingly, with a sloshy Brian telling a confessor -- his bartender -- the sad tale of how he came to be on a drinking binge on the streets of Manhattan. And Norton, who makes his directorial debut here, has coaxed a believable rapport between his co-stars, who drop writer Stuart Blumberg's one-liners with expert timing.
But the filmmakers weren't content with making what Norton has described as "a rabbi-priest joke writ large." Instead, they wanted to explore issues of faith and commitment.
Some of these scenes give "Keeping the Faith" a refreshing heft and substance, such as when Brian's mentor (played by Milos Forman) explains that he falls in love "at least once a decade" and that commitment, whether it's to a vocation or a wife, means choosing over and over again. At other times, though, they seem out of place in a film that throws too much at the wall to see what sticks.
Although much of the dialogue echoes the banter typical of three ambitious young professionals, Norton throws in a distracting amount of physical comedy, little of which works.
A scene in which he douses his flaming vestments by sitting in a baptismal font is especially awkward.
The filmmakers seem much more comfortable in the synagogue than in the church -- Stiller's sermons are extended stand-up routines in which he compares God to Blanche du Bois ("He always relies on the kindness of strangers") and hauls in an African-American gospel choir to liven up a dragging hymn. But "Keeping the Faith" is just as likely to trot out a pratfall, sucker-punch or karaoke scene for laughs as a witty observation about organized religion.
Norton steals deftly from Jimmy Stewart in "The Philadelphia Story" and does a great imitation of Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man," but comedy still doesn't seem to be this terrific actor's metier. Stiller and Elfman seem much more at ease in a movie that depends on breezy attitude and effortless delivery for its success.
Still, the three generate enough warmth to keep "Keeping the Faith" aloft, even against some pretty big odds.
'Keeping the Faith'
Starring Edward Norton, Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman
Directed by Edward Norton
Rated PG-13 (some sexuality and language)
Released by Touchstone Pictures
Running time 131 minutes
Sun score ** 1/2