Faith hell

So, there's a rabbi and a priest...wait, stop me if you've heard this one

You will cry when Keeping the Faith ends, if only because, after 130 minutes, the damned thing is over. They will be tears of gratitude, like those shed by marathon runners as they cross the finish line, broken and spent. There is only so much the human body can endure. We simply aren't built to withstand so many mom's-in-the-hospital scenes and pulpit sermons and nyuk-nyuk pratfalls and uplifting speeches on faith and tradition and love-scene montages set to Elliott Smith songs. The Jews in the audience will wrap themselves in their religious talismans, beat their chests, and emit pitiful cries of oyoyoyoy; Catholics will drown themselves in holy water. Everyone else will wonder what the hell they're doing there in the first place.

Like some pilot for a new ABC series titled Two Guys, a Girl, and a Synagogue, this movie is banal sit-comedy masquerading as religious deepthink dolled up as boy-meets-goy love story. Keeping the Faith -- about a rabbi (Ben Stiller), a priest (Edward Norton, also the film's director), and Anna, the girl who loves them unequally (Jenna Elfman) -- strives for depth but keeps hitting its head on the shallow end. Not only are you 20 steps ahead of this movie before the opening credits end, you're 20 steps out the door. And Stiller and Elfman are not Streisand and Redford, whose charisma alone carried The Way We Were to the finish line against its will. Yes, you want to see Stiller and Elfman end up together, but only so we can wrap this sucker up and make our escape from this prefab, sanitized sermon on faith, love, and the inexplicable appeal of Ben Stiller to attractive women (or, as they say, charity).

If you don't see where this movie is headed (namely, conversion classes), you might be a fetus. It's only inevitable that both Rabbi Jake Schram and Father Brian Kilkenny Finn would fall in love with their childhood pal Anna Reilly, reunited with the two men after nearly two decades. She is, as Brian recalls, the perfect girl -- "a cross between Johnny Quest and Tatum O'Neal in Foxes." (Every other woman in the film is just dense and/or humorless.) But Brian can't have Anna (vows of celibacy being what they are), and Jake can -- which is fortunate, since workaholic Anna wants him. Only, loving a shiksa could ruin Jake's shot at being head rabbi and screw up his relationship with his mother (Anne Bancroft), who has already disowned one son for marrying a non-Jew. Think The Thorn Birds Crossing Delancey, then stop thinking when Anna says, "Sometimes you don't see things in a certain way till you're ready." They don't give Oscars for Best Fortune Cookie, do they?

The God Squad and their girlfriend: Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman, and Ed Norton skip to the ludicrous.
The God Squad and their girlfriend: Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman, and Ed Norton skip to the ludicrous.

Details

Starring Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman, Edward Norton, Anne Bancroft, Eli Wallach, and Milos Forman

Release Date:
April 14

Official site

Release Date:
April 14

Directed by Edward Norton

Written by Stuart Blumberg

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But every now and then, almost by accident, Keeping the Faith offers up a random aphorism that actually means something, that (dare one say it?) applies to Real Life. As Jake, the hipster rabbi who wears his yarmulke like a leather jacket and seemingly begins every sentence with an exasperated Jesus, Stiller is desperate to find a way to reconnect his congregation to their religion. He has watched attendance dwindle to nothing; he hears how those who do show up for services mumble their way through prayers. It's a prescient point: Jews have forgotten how to be Jewish, and our spiritual leaders have no idea how to reconcile tradition with today. Jake -- who believes in presenting "an old-world God with a new-age spin" -- battles against the synagogue's elders, who abhor change. "People come here for a sense of continuity," says the head rabbi (Eli Wallach). "Tradition is not a sense of old habit -- it's comforting."

But this is not a film too concerned with spirituality or tradition; it merely hides behind such things as it winks its way through the "religious" bits (a bar mitzvah, confession, Kol Nidre services, a bris), which are tossed in as though on loan from Religion for Dummies. Jake is part rock star, part Phil Donahue; he turns the pulpit into a stage, sprinkling his sermons with pop-culture references and wandering through the congregation bearing a microphone for a little Q&A. And without warning, the movie becomes Sister Act in a tallis: One Saturday morning, Jake brings in a Harlem gospel choir to perform, hoping to shock the systems of those moribund Hebrews who have forgotten how to rejoice. The scene, like so many others, falls flat, and what's played for laughs elicits only groans.

Norton's Father Brian is more temperate than his best friend, who seems to confuse profound with glib. Brian's a Spanish-speaker who packs the house by playing to the cheap seats, and Norton's almost believable as a priest; his is, after all, the face of a choirboy (a fact played for sick grins in Primal Fear). No matter how silly he acts, no matter how many cutesy falls he takes, Brian offers up a serene solemnity. Even when he considers giving up his vows of celibacy for Anna, Norton wears Brian's inner conflict like an old T-shirt. You almost feel for him as he breaks down, offering his own embarrassing confession to the woman who doesn't return his affection.

But Norton and screenwriter Stuart Blumberg ruin that scene, undercutting the tension with limp jokes. "I feel like I'm in some Aaron Spelling show," Brian mutters through tears. "Melrose Priest." The echo you hear is the laugh-track machine, broken down in the corner. And Brian is too often reduced to set dressing, the third wheel cut loose for long stretches of time. We see Jake delivering sermon after sermon, teaching bar mitzvah classes, and generally Jewing out in scene after scene, while Brian is reduced to confessing his love for Anna to Father Havel (Milos Forman, slumming it). The whole movie belongs to Stiller, who offers up yet another irritating variation on the sole character he seems capable of playing: himself.

Perhaps Norton simply had difficulty balancing his roles as actor and director; certainly, he stumbles over the latter. He has no sense of comedic timing, no feel for pacing. Scenes don't end; they just stop, stranding stale punch lines in the ether. Even when the film stumbles across a nifty bit, Norton wrings the life out of it until the comedy falls limp on the concrete; the jokes should be cordoned off with police tape. When, early on, Jake tries to convince Brian and Anna to join him on a double date, Brian breaks out in a dead-on impression of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, repeating phrases in a deadpan drone. It's a brief but effective gag, a respite in a comedy that takes itself so seriously, but Norton repeats the shtick over and over until he finally becomes an annoyance. Stiller then taps in the final nail by actually referring to Brian as Rain Man, in case the audience is too stupid (or, perhaps, too sleepy) to catch on to the reference. You might feel condescended to, if that knot of pity weren't in the way.

And Norton plays every scene too broadly, too loudly; you expect everyone to break into song at the end of every scene -- which they actually do a couple of times. (Indeed, the film ends with a scene set in an interfaith karaoke coffee bar for seniors, where Barry Manilow's "Ready to Take a Chance Again," the love theme from Foul Play, coos over the loud speakers. Really, not making this up.) In the end, the film's point is so clear, you can see right through it: Hey, guess what, it's possible for Jews and Catholics to get along! They can even love each other, in the most biblical sense!

Jesus wept.

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