Usually when a hot young actor gets control of the camera, he
makes a picture that’s edgy and uncompromising–just think of
recent efforts by Gary Oldman and Tim Roth. What a surprise,
then, that “Keeping the Faith” shows Edward Norton, who made
everybody take notice with his chilling turn in “Primal Fear”
and then went on to such risky ventures as “The People Vs.
Larry Flynt,” “Rounders” and “Fight Club,” to be such an old
softie. (It’s especially shocking in view of the fact that he
was rumored to have taken the editing of “American History X”
away from helmer Tony Kaye after shooting ceased, and that
turned out to be a pretty hard-hitting effort.) Still, Norton
also warbled away in Woody Allen’s “Everybody Says I Love You,”
so maybe his nice-guy side truly is dominant.

In any event, “Faith” proves to be an amiable, light-hearted
romantic-triangle comedy, not unlike so many formula flicks
of the thirties and fifties. The twist in Stuart Blumberg’s
script is that the trio are a priest, a rabbi, and a gal with
whom they’d been close buddies in adolescence. After a long
absence Anna (Jenna Elfman) returns to New York as a driven
corporate executive, where she immediately links up once more
with old pals Father Brian Finn (Norton), an assistant in an
inner-city parish, and Jake Schram (Ben Stiller), an eager,
people-pleasing associate rabbi at a local temple. Her return
rekindles the interest of both male friends: it causes Brian
to reconsider his vows and Jake to worry about how his getting
involved with a gentile girl might affect his family and his
standing in a synagogue, many of whose members look upon him as
the most eligible of bachelors for their unmarried daughters.
Rather typical complications ensue, leading to an entirely
predictable conclusion (though, at more than two hours, it
takes rather longer to get there than seems necessary).

One might think that a romantic triangle involving a priest
and a rabbi might invite some sharp comedy or even lean toward
the potentially offensive, but that’s certainly not the case
here. The movie is so rigidly, insistently nice that it
disarms criticism on that score. The lead characters, even
when they have the disagreements the plot demands, always have
one another’s best interests at heart, and the people who
surround them are equally pleasant. Milos Forman is cuddly
and avuncular as Brian’s pastor, for example, and Eli Wallach,
though he naturally kvetches a bit in the stereotypical fashion
required of an old-school rabbi, is similarly sweet as Jake’s
superior. Even Anne Bancroft tones down her usual histrionics
as Jake’s mom (and manages to make a thoroughly implausible
turn in her character’s attitudes toward the close less absurd
than it ought to have been). Indeed, the closest thing the
movie has to a villain is Ron Rifkin, playing the head of the
synagogue board, who expresses mild irritation at Jake’s
modern methods but, at the end of the day, embraces the young
whippersnapper anyhow. Overall, the picture is a happy
celebration of interfaith harmony and cooperation, making a
point of embracing cultural and religious diversity to the nth
degree (the chaotically mixed ethnic and religious background
of the bartender to whom Brian relates the tale in flashback
is perhaps the most glaring example of this).

On the other hand, “Keeping the Faith” can be criticized, like
the many old jokes its basic premise recalls, for being more
than a trifle stale. Much of its humor has an elbow-in-the-
side quality that leaves no room for subtlety, and when the
plot goes off in a vaguely serious direction, the movie comes
to a complete halt. (Anna and Jake’s debate as to whether
their love should overcome the difficulties their marriage
would cause for his career, for instance, is positively
deadening.) The obligatory final chase and warmly comforting
conclusion, moreover, prove oppressively pat and not a little

Ultimately what keeps the picture afloat is its game cast.
Norton proves himself an adept light comedian, handling some
slapstick moments toward the start with aplomb (although his
drunk scenes later are way overdone). Stiller does his usual
shtick ably enough: he’s more a stand-up performer than an
actor, but that’s not fatal. Elfman catches the gruffness of
Anna nicely, but is less successful at capturing her supposed
charm. And, as has been pointed out, the supporting cast
positively oozes likability.

So “Keeping the Faith” is well-meaning and decently put
together, and it has occasional moments of charm. When one
considers what Norton might have accomplished if, as a director,
he had been willing to take the same sorts of chances he’s
embraced in his acting, however, this harmless bit of formulaic
fluff seems rather beneath him.