Keeping the Faith
Originally Written: December 2000
A miracle of a movie. OK, a priest and a rabbi are best friends (known on the basketball court as “The God Squad”) living and working in New York. One day an old friend from 8th grade comes back into town on business- now a beautiful and driven woman- and wants to get back together with them to pick up where they left off. Pretty soon the priest and rabbi begin to experience feelings of love for their friend (despite the vow of celibacy for the priest and the fact that a rabbi in love with a woman not of his faith might not go over too well withh his congregation), leadding to a love triangle, strainedd friendships, and two religious leaders questioning their devotion to their calling.
High concept Hollywood schmaltz? Not quite. Instead, “Keeping the Faith”- written by first-timer Stuart Blumberg- is a gloriously old-fashioned romantic comedy with uncommon intelligence, deep emotion, and warm heart that will restore your faith in Hollywood’s ability to blend smart writing, sentiment, and surprises to create an adult romance that’s funny, touching, and absolutely irresistible.
For that, thank Edward Norton, the boldly talented actor who makes his directorial debut with “Keeping the Faith.” Norton- like Brando in his early days- in quick time has proven his skill with an astonishing range of projects from his stunning debut in 1996’s “Primal Fear” to “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You,” “Rounders,” “American History X” (where he played a neo-Nazi and won his second Oscar nomination after “Primal Fear”), and finally, in David Fincher’s ultra-controversial “Fight Club,” in which he brilliantly playedd an office dronee who begins an underground network of “support groups” for men where they beat each other to a bloody pulp release their anger of being boxed in by consumerist America.
So has Norton gone soft with his role as the priest, Father Brian Finn? Think again. While “Keeping the Faith”- dedicatedd to Norton’s mother, who died of brain cancer- is sunny comparedd to the likes of “Fight Club” and “Primal Fear,” Norton knows- and acknowledges- the inherent risks in Brian and Jake’s desires. For instance, Father Brian is so rattled by his feelings for Anna Riley (played by “Dharma & Greg’s” Jenna Elfman) that he looks to his mentor, Father Havel (nicely played by Milos Forman, who directed Norton in “Larry Flynt”), for guidance; the advice he’s given I’ll discuss in the paragraphs after this review. And Rabbi Jake Schramm (Ben Stiller) is also conflicted; when his brother married a non-Jew, his mother (Anne Bancroft- in a role that could have easily been hammed up- brings touching gravity to the role with wonderful effect) refused to talk to or about him afterwards. And on top of that, Jake’s already on the hot seat with his superiors (played by Eli Wallach and Ron Rifkin) for his questionable sermon tactics like bringing in a Gospel choir to sing “Ein Keloheinu” and using New Age-y meditation in prayer. These conflicts between faith and desire- which would feel contrived in a lesser film- are used to show that these leaders of faith- both respected in their community and completely devout to their congregations- are still as human as you and I, and as such, are just as susceptible to the same temptations we are. Heck, the first image we see of Father Finn is him walking down the New York streets, stinking drunk and feeling dejected after Anna- the woman in question- has just confessed her love for Jake while Finn attempts to show his own deep affection for Anna. In a year where Hollywood’s backed off in terms of risk-taking technique and bizarre storylines, “Keeping the Faith”- as old-fashioned as its’ love triangle story is- is a breath of fresh air when it comes to daring to combine issues of love and religion- two of Hollywood’s most sentiment-prone subjects- and coming up with a “slice-of-life, yet only in Hollywood” charmer that explores- albeit with a bit too sunny results- the risks involved with falling in love and being human.
For that, thank the wonderful cast. In addition to superb supporting players Bancroft, Wallach, and Rifkin- among others- the trio of stars shine in smashing performances. Stiller is essentially doing his lovable guy in over his head routiine from “There’s Something About Mary,” “Meet the Parents,” and other films; still, he finds the nuances and soul of Rabbi Jake as a man both commited to his faith and position and messed up by going with his romantic impulses, even though his love with Anna has appeared exactly how he’s admitted to Brian he’s always wanted to fall in love. It’s a telling, memorable performance by a gifted actor whom audiences can relate to. Norton- as Father Brian- is marvelous yet again in a funny and touching performance as a sincere guy who is good at his job, yet just needs some reassurance in his “choice” after an awkward and disasterous “coming out” with Anna where his true feelings for her are out in the open (the scene representss a tour de force for Norton- high praise for this rising talent if you’ve seen any of his earlier work). As the object of Jake and Brian’s affections, Elfman establishes herself as the next Meg Ryan of romantic comedies. Anna is a tough, intelligent woman who’s made a fast-paced, successful life for herself, and when she’s away from the office, it’s very easy to see why Brian and Jake are both attracted to her. However, the confusion Jake and Brian feel is also felt by Anna; she’s not invincible emotionally, and her confusion about what she wants when her relationships with both Brian and Jake go South is as palatable as Stiller’s and Norton’s is (her mid-film scenes with both would- in a just world- make her a sure-fire Oscar contender). It’s a revelatory performance and breakthrough for Elfman after two previous misfires, one deserved (“Krippendorf’s Tribe”), one not (“EDtv”).
So why, after films like “Almost Famous,” “High Fidelity,” and “Fantasia/2000,” is “Keeping the Faith” my favorite film of 2000? Aside from the reasons above, part of it has to do with the time in my life I saw the film. I first saw “Keeping the Faith” in mid May, which- as you all probably remember- was when I first went to Ohio to see my grandfather after we found out about the cancer. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the right film at the right time. All year I hadn’t seen a film quite as good as “Keeping the Faith” as grabbing hold of me emotionally and giving me a story and great characters to identify with on quite as personal a level as I did with Father Brian, Rabbi Jake, and even- in an unusual way- Anna. “High Fidelity” and “Wonder Boys”- with a great Michael Douglas- came close, but didn’t quite affect me quite as much as “Keeping the Faith” did. I was doing quite a bit of soul-searching at this time, and looking back I realize that a movie like “Keeping the Faith”- with its’ themes of love, friendship, and faith- was exactly what I needed to see at the time. It made me laugh at a time when I wasn’t doing a lot of laughing at movies or in general, and it made me smile at a time when it was difficult to do so given the circumstances (spending time with family I hadn’t seen much of the past four years helped immensely in both areas as well). I saw “Keeping the Faith” a total of seven times in theatres between May 13- when I first saw it- and June 1, the last time I saw it, which was also the same day we learned he was terminal; I just needed something to try to brighten my mood. It didn’t exactly work that day, but it helped. I didn’t see it again until it came out on video in October, and that viewing merely reminded me exactly why I fell in love with the movie in the first place. I also made it one of my first DVD purchases in Novemer 2000, and the soundtrack- featuring some of Elmer Bernstein’s wonderful score, and songs by Tom Waits and Peter Salett- is one of my all-time favorites. Both will serve as pleasant reminders of this time in my life.
In a review by Jeffrey Huston I read over the Internet about “Keeping the Faith,” Mr. Houston said of the film, “The recent ‘Return to Me’ (with David Duchovny and Minnie Driver) had me wanting to go out on a date; ‘Keeping the Faith’ has me longing to be in love.” I know what he means. Being able to provoke such strong feelings about oneself is the ultimate power a movie can have. This year, “High Fidelity” did it, “Bounce” did it, “Nurse Betty” did it, and “Almost Famous” did it most of all. ‘Rolling Stone’s’ Peter Travers said several years ago when discussing the re-released Alfred Hitchcock classic “Vertigo” that, “We all have a personal movie- favorite is too timid a word.” Point in fact, I have three sure-fire personal movies- “The Crow” is one, “Braveheart” is the second, “Keeping the Faith” is the latest.
The following segment was written about “Faith” in March 2006 in a MySpace blog entitled “Rent,” “Faith” and life,” which I wrote at a time of personal reflection. Hope you enjoy it.
Similar- yet different- emotional issues are also at the heart of “Keeping the Faith,” Edward Norton’s wonderful 2000 romantic comedy about a priest and a rabbi who are thrown for emotional loops when their childhood friend Anna comes to visit. When this movie was out in theatres, it because a cinematic friend in the first weeks of me being with my grandfather in Ohio as his cancer progressed. To this day I cannot explain how it happened considering I merely enjoyed the film my first time watching it. I think it was the palpable ups and downs in the friendships between Father Brian Finn (Norton), Rabbi Jake Schram (Ben Stiller), and businesswoman Anna Riley (Jenna Elfman) and the tight bond between them as their lives took the roller coaster of life; it resonated as I was going through that rough time of my life that summer (confiding in a new friend who recognized my need to be listened helped as well).
Seeing the movie again recently, six years later, I still find the friendships here intelligently drawn and strained, but the story now has new meaning that I’m at the same point of my life these characters are at. They’re hurdling towards 30 and have excelled at jobs that they feel strongly about (at least Brian and Jake feel strongly about theirs), just as I feel I excel at my job at the theatre (don’t get me wrong- I still make mistakes). But life throws them a curveball in Anna, a smart, funny, and sexy woman whose vitality stirs uncomfortable feelings in both priest and rabbi that challenge the beliefs they hold closest to themselves in their teachings. For Jake, his affair with the non-Jewish Anna could strain his relationship with his congregation and his mother- who wasn’t too happy when Jake’s brother married a non-Jewish woman- just as he could be accomplishing everything he ever wanted, although his love for Anna is exactly that on a romantic level. That he takes the chance and gets the girl at the end goes without saying, but that it gets there convincingly is a cause for celebration for genre fans. My point of identification, though, has always been with Father Brian, because I’ve felt that same romantic longing that can screw up your compass in this life that he feels for Anna, and the dilemma between what you want in life and what you’ve chosen for yourself. In his time of indecision, Father Brian turns to his mentor, who’s been a priest for 40 years, who tells him that “you cannot make a real commitment, unless it’s a choice that you keep making again and again.” A heart-to-heart with Anna- who confirms for him his path was the correct one- validates his mentor’s advice, and puts his personal compass pointing North again while strengthening his friendship with Anna. That I’d like to find the same sense of completeness both Brian and Jake find in their own ways- in both finding affirmation of my passion and getting the girl- at the end of my journey should go without saying.