A valentine to New York’s racial, religious and cultural diversity, “Keeping the Faith,” actor Edward Norton’s well-shot feature directorial debut, is a schematically constructed romantic comedy about an unusual triangle: a rabbi and a priest who fall in love with the same woman. Pic benefits from a contempo texture and from pleasant performances by its central trio. Of the current cycle of romantic comedies (and practically every studio is releasing one this season), “Keeping the Faith” is arguably the most accomplished — strong word of mouth could turn it into a popular date movie for movie-goers in their 20s and 30s.
Verbose comedy is inspired by numerous love triangles, from “The Philadelphia Story” to “Broadcast News,” and by quintessential Big Apple movies by Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky, though it lacks those films’ wit, depth and star charisma. Ideological and commercial considerations march hand in hand in the touchy-feely script by Stuart Blumberg, Norton’s Yale pal and an investment banker before turning to filmmaking. Tensions between tradition and modernity, love and friendship, career and marriage are all too smoothly and easily resolved before the end credits.
The first act, which is too cutesy for its own good, unfolds in the mode of Woody Allen’s ’70s comedies. Narrated by Brian, it reconstructs the boisterously happy childhood of the protagonists as seventh-graders, until Anna moves out of the neighborhood, which breaks the hearts of Brian and Jake.
Story proper begins when the mature Anna (Jenna Elfman) unexpectedly calls Brian (Norton) to announce her arrival in New York, and he and Jake (Ben Stiller) rush to the airport to greet her. Brian has become a priest, Jake a rabbi and Anna a driven exec addicted to her cell phone. Script conveys the sense of ambitious, overconfident youngsters, all idealistically committed to their calling, who suddenly realize that something major is missing from their lives.
Initial hour chronicles how the trio conduct their work-dominated lives. A highly motivated perfectionist, Jake experiments with “unkosher” ways of rejuvenating the old religious practices by bringing a black gospel choir to his congregation and encouraging group meditation. He is a most eligible Upper West Side bachelor who goes on a series of dates, arranged by members of his temple who are anxious that he marry a Jewish girl. One of pic’s highlights is a date with a fit athlete, Ali (Lisa Edelstein), in a scene that draws on slapstick comedy.
Several blocks away from Jake’s temple is the Catholic church where Brian introduces his own innovations. A conscientious priest, he plays an active role in his community, demonstrating a good command of Spanish and empathy for its needy residents.
Brian and Jake’s solid friendship is threatened when Jake and Anna realize they are attracted to each other and engage in a wild affair without bothering to tell their best friend. When Anna falls harder for Jake than either of them anticipated, they find their well-ordered priorities thrown into disarray.
The audience is always one step ahead of the characters in this predictable yarn. But to pic’s credit, the central trio are portrayed as down-to-earth individuals. Further helping the none-too-snappy proceedings are the colorful milieu and, especially, the gallery of character actors.
Anne Bancroft brings authority to the role of Jake’s overly concerned (though not stereotypically domineering) mother, who’s alienated from her older son because she could never accept his gentile wife. Eli Wallach is cast as Rabbi Lewis, who functions as a peacemaker between the temple’s more traditional members and Jake’s unconventional methods. Holland Taylor commands as an elegant temple member, anxious for Jake to date her rising TV anchor daughter (Rena Sofer), and, in a custom-tailored part, helmer Milos Forman shows up as Father Havel, Brian’s compassionate boss, who confides that despite rules and restrictions, he too has fallen in love with several women in his life.
In its effort to convey a multicultural New York, pic panders to viewers with such secondary characters as an Indian bartender of mixed blood (Brian George), who offers a sympathetic ear to Brian’s cri de coeur, and an eccentric Asian salesman (Ken Leung), who at the yarn’s flippant ending performs karoake with Jake and Brian.
Of the central trio, the most commendable performance comes from Stiller, who carries the film. Elfman, of TV’s “Dharma & Greg,” is likable but lacks the wits and charisma that Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne or Katharine Hepburn would have brought to such a role. In the most demanding but often thankless and bland role, the gifted Norton acquits himself honorably.
Norton directs with assurance, and strong technical support from lenser Anastas Michos, production designer Wynn P. Thomas, costumer Michael Kaplan and composer Elmer Bernstein gives the film a polished veneer, making it a far more enjoyable experience than one would expect given its diagrammatic, overlong script.