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'Faith': Blessedly Funny

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2000


    'Keeping the Faith' Ben Stiller and Edward Norton play romantic rivals for Jenna Elfman. (Touchstone)
At its base, "Keeping the Faith" is a straight-ahead romantic triangle in which the lively, coltish Anna (Jenna Elfman) must choose between two childhood friends. But there's a twist – the kind of twist that will tickle and charm many an audience.

As I watched this movie, I could almost hear the agent pitching the story to the Disney executives who approved the project:

Okay, so this girl's gotta choose between two guys who were pals from a long time ago, right? She hasn't seen them in years. And suddenly, she's back in town. She can't wait to see them. They can't wait to see her. But here's the thing. Since they grew up, the guys have become – wait for it, here it comes – holy men!

That's right. Brian (Edward Norton, who also directs the picture) is a Catholic priest sworn to celibacy. And Jake Schram (Ben Stiller) is a rabbi, who can date anyone he wants, although he's going to get some funny stares in Temple if she isn't Jewish. Anna's last name is Reilly.

If this cute concept doesn't give you sugar overload, get in line. The storyline moves crisply, the performers are very likable (although Norton's adorability definitely taxed my insulin levels), and those one-liners keep on coming.

"Keeping the Faith," written by Stuart Blumberg, opens with a drunken, sorrowful Brian, who stumbles into a Manhattan bar, tries unsuccessfully to pick up a woman, then starts to recount his sad story to an Indian bartender (Brian George).

It's an anguished account of Brian, Jake and Anna, and the commotion she caused by coming back into their lives.

As spiritual leaders on New York's Upper West side, Brian and Jake are good at what they do. Both are single, Brian by religious choice and Jake by accident. The rabbi is so overwhelmed with mothers trying to force their daughters into his life, he doesn't know where to begin.

"There's a reason pandas don't mate in captivity," he laments.

When Anna breezes back into Manhattan, after all those years away, Brian and Jake are ecstatic at what they see: a vivacious, dynamic corporate executive, who's fun and single. Her job, she tells them, gives her no time for relationships.

May the romantic battle begin. Certainly Jake, who is weathering his share of bizarre dates, is interested. But Brian is also a contender. Although he's a man of the cloth, there's something about Anna that's making a life of celibacy seem like an eternity.

For my money, the most enjoyable part of "Faith" is the comic business. Scriptwriter Blumberg, a former writer for "MAD TV," comes up with some hilarious stingers, including a description of those pushy, matchmaking mothers as "Kosher Nostra." And Stiller's definitely the comic MVP, whether he's psyching up a kid whose voice is breaking to sing at his barMitzvah or desperately trying to get away from a scary date called Ellen (Susie Essman). As he drops her off by taxi, Ellen openly invites Jake upstairs. He politely declines. She gets insistent and tells the cab driver to leave. Jake orders the cabbie to stay. There's a struggle between Jake and Ellen. Ellen falls to the ground. Jake apologizes while he's leaping – getaway style – into the taxi.

"Go! Go! Go!" he yells to the driver, leaving the poor woman splayed on the sidewalk.

Rejecting Ellen is a good thing, of course, because it keeps Jake available for the love of his life: Anna. Here is where casting director Avy Kaufman, or whoever secured the deal for Elfman, struck gold. The star of TV's "Dharma and Greg" is a perfect burst of sunshine, whose cheery presence is easily enough to justify two men fighting each other for her favor. Without her central presence, all the comedy in the world isn't going to matter.

KEEPING THE FAITH (PG-13, 129 minutes) – Contains some strong language and sexual situations that might have merited an R rating if the characters had been French.


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