Like the trappings of a bartender joke, "Keeping the Faith" revolves around the unlikely love triangle that forms between a priest, a rabbi, and a career woman. The story starts off in New York during the Seventies with neighborhood kids Brian Finn, Jake Schram, and Anna Reilly becoming the best of friends despite their differing backgrounds. Unfortunately, this juvenile triumvirate is cut short when Anna's family moves out to the East Coast, leaving Brian and Jake to grow up together, heartbroken.
Flash-forward to the present, and things are quite different. Brian (Norton) has become a priest who genuinely feels compassion for his congregation and packs the house with his sermons. Meanwhile, Jake (Ben Stiller of "Mystery Men") has become a popular rabbi who uses unconventional techniques to liven up the service (much to the chagrin of his elders) and must fight off the numerous marriage-minded Jewish girls being pushed onto him.
Despite their differing religious callings, the two men have remained close friends, and are well known to their respective congregations as 'The God Squad' for their numerous joint activities, including the founding of a 'joint-faith' senior citizens home for Jews and Gentiles alike. However, this all changes when, out of the blue, Brian receives a call from Anna (Jenna Elfman of "EdTV"), who announces that she will be working in New York for the next few months. Unlike her two male cohorts, Anna has also found her calling in the arena of big business, and is forever handcuffed to her cell phone.
Though their reunion is a happy one in the beginning as the three friends pick up their friendship from where they left off back in the seventh grade, the tension quickly rises when Jake and Anna are attracted to one another, and carry on an affair behind Brian's back. To make matters worse, Brian starts questioning his vows when he begins feeling stirrings of affection for Anna. These events also trigger a crisis of conscience for Jake, who not only must marry a nice Jewish girl (which Anna is clearly not) to appease his congregation, but also wants to preserve his friendship with Brian. And while the outcome of this interfaith mess is entirely predictable, half the fun of the film is getting there.
Whether you are Jewish, Gentile, or none of the above, there is a lot to like in this spunky romantic-comedy. On the one hand, the film is punctuated by some terrific comic sequences, including some hilarious vignettes of Brian and Jake's less-than-humble beginnings, Brian's heart-to-heart with a bartender (Brian George), and a memorable blind date that Jake must endure with a self-absorbed fitness freak (Lisa Eidelstein of TV's "Sports Night"). The film also takes numerous jabs (though reverential) at both the Catholic and Jewish faiths, making the usually dry topics of religion and faith actually fun-- the witty proceedings would probably encourage even the staunchest atheist to attend church or temple. And like the films of Woody Allen, "Keeping the Faith" sparkles in its dialogue, which often comes fast and furious as the actors are put through their paces by an endless parade of droll one-liners. Even in the film's second half, when the action begins to lag a bit, "Keeping the Faith" is still a hoot to watch.
However, even more prominent than the film's loquacious humor is the uplifting thematic undercurrent that calls for tolerance. "Keeping the Faith" is a film that celebrates diversity in all its forms-- cultural, racial, and religious. The script, penned by Norton's long-term friend Stuart Blumberg (who also had a bit part in "Fight Club" as a car salesman), drills this point home throughout the story, especially in the film's heartfelt climax where the characters must come to understand that their differences are not as insurmountable as they think they are. It's rare to see this kind of thematic cohesion in light fare such as "Keeping the Faith"-- but then again, it could be just that I have been spoiled by the rash of teen romance-comedies of late.
The wonderful performances also make "Keeping the Faith" an entertaining romp. As Rabbi Jake, Stiller carries the film with a terrific turn that expresses the ambition and confusion that hound his character. Norton, doing double duty in front and behind the camera, is also a joy to watch, though I did notice a few scenes where his acting did waver a bit-- he must have had too much on his mind. Elfman, who radiated warmth and charisma in last year's "EdTV", does the same with Anna, providing the film with an enthusiastic and sparkling love interest. Rounding out the cast are a number of smaller but memorable players. Anne Bancoft (heard recently in "Antz") is great as Jake's mother, director Milos Forman ("Man on the Moon") shows up briefly to play Brian's sympathetic boss, Ron Rifkin ("Boiler Room") acquits himself well as Jake's conservative superior, while Ken Leung ("Rush Hour") steals a scene as an unconventional karaoke salesman.
You really can't go wrong with this amusing and appealing romantic-comedy. With a wonderful script, some assured direction, and a great ensemble of actors, "Keeping the Faith" is a stunning first effort from actor-turned-director Norton, as it has restored my faith in the possibilities that still remain in the romantic-comedy. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.