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Keeping the Faith

Rated [PG-13], 129 minutes
Starring Ben Stiller, Edward Norton, Jenna Elfman
Screenplay by Stuart Blumberg
Directed by Edward Norton

Review by Paul Fischer. Cranky's review here. StarTalk here

Jake (Ben Stiller) and Brian (Edward Norton) have been best friends for life. At one point they were also friends with Anna (Jenna Elfman), who moved away to California when they were in the eighth grade. The three grew up and now Jake is a rabbi, Brian is a priest and Anna is a corporate executive who likes to spy on people in the building across from her.

Anna returns to her hometown of New York for a job taller and hot-to-trot. She gives the sexless Jake and Brian a shot of what they do or do not (depending on Jake or Brian) need: Sex appeal. Jake and Brian both quickly fall for Anna, but because Brian is priest, he tries to remain close to his no-sex vow. Jake, on the other hand, does not stay virtuous and hops right into bed with Anna, and ultimately falls in love with her, becoming torn between his loyalty to mum and congregation, and his feelings for Anna. The pair also lies to Brian about the relationship and though he finally finds out, it is at the worst possible time it could happen.

So there was this priest, this Rabbi and a bar. You know the one, or do you? Romantic comedies are a tough genre to make work, and in mainstream Hollywood they rarely do. But with Ed Norton's smart and delightful Keeping the Faith, one's own faith in romantic comedy has been restored. Here is a truly charming, beautifully written piece that gracefully moves across the screen with a gentle precision. While some may argue that the film is too long (and it does clock in at slightly over two hours), it doesn't seem to matter, because Norton's sprightly direction and the way in which these characters develop, make it worth spending some time with these people. What tends to be wrong with so much of American mainstream moviemaking, is that screenwriters develop overdone plots, without thinking of character, ands the kinds of dilemmas we, as human beings, often find ourselves in. Keeping the Faith is not long because of its director's mere indulgence, but because he presents us with an arc that this trio goes through, and spends his time exploring those themes prevalent in the script: Faith, the place of contemporary religion in the 21st century, the importance of friendship and self-growth. These are all interesting concerns in a genre known to be light and simplistic. This is a movie that delves into important areas, and thus is a far more fulfilling and emotionally richer work, than one would expect.

As a character piece, Norton has cast his romantic fable down to perfection. Norton himself, as the somewhat energetic but naive priest, shows a rare side to him on screen: Here he is funny, touching and vulnerable, giving a subtler and nuanced performance. As for Stiller's Rabbi, he's never been better here, succeeding in stepping beyond Jewish caricature and giving a fully realised and beautiful performance. But the biggest surprise is Jenna Elfman, who simply lights up the screen, and shows us, finally, what she's made off. Here she's smart, funny, deliciously sexy, gorgeous and gives us a wonderful performance all round. Her smile may well give Julia Roberts a run for her money. It's also nice to see some veterans strutting their stuff, all of whom have been given key scenes: Anne Bancroft is alluring as the Jewish mother we love to hate but ultimately love; the delightful Eli Wallach as the retiring Rabbi; and director Milos Foreman, superb as Norton's priestly mentor.

Keeping the Faith is a film about what we share and what makes us different, and it's a pointed comment on religion and its effects on a modern world. It's funny and insightful, delightful and poignant; it's a wonderfully irresistible charmer of which there are very few in this age of cynicism.


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