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'Faith,' Answer to Filmgoer's Prayer

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2000


    'Keeping the Faith' Ben Stiller and Edward Norton play romantic rivals for Jenna Elfman. (Touchstone)
Though its heroes are clerics, the faith being kept in Edward Norton's "Keeping the Faith" isn't really religious. It's secular and humanistic--a faith in people, and their ability to get along.

That should be no surprise, for it's the same faith that underlies the dream of the director's famous grandfather and led him to reinvent the American city in the post-riot '70s, in such places as Columbia, Md., and Summerlin, Nev.

Norton obviously listened when his granddad, the visionary James Rouse, spoke. And he paid attention when he grew up in Columbia, with its dream of utopian plenitude, its gestalt of peaceful coexistence and integration of class and race. That's really what "Keeping the Faith" is all about--reconciliation and forgiveness and love of community far more than love of other bodies or the self.

So here's a movie that not only has a heart, but wears it on its sleeve. It may be the most ruggedly decent film to come along in a couple of decades and, although it's a mite slow (it could lose half an hour easily), it's surprisingly delightful. It's a good boy on his best behavior; it probably represents the true heart of Edward Norton.

Norton himself plays a priest named Brian Finn who finds himself in an oddly configured love triangle involving his two best friends, Rabbi Jake Schram (played by Ben Stiller) and business whiz Anna Reilly (Jenna Elfman). Well, it's really a triangle only in his mind; actually it's a love affair between the two consenting adults, neither of whom, unlike him, is obligated to abstinence.

And Norton is generous, also. (Can we find one bad thing to say about this guy? I used not to like his taste in women, but now I like it very much, so even that's out, dammit!) His own role is the most diminished of the three and the least convincingly dramatized--and, truth be told, the least interesting.

Stiller's Jake is really the fulcrum, and his issue is the central one of American Judaism and maybe, by metaphoric extension, of America itself. That is: How Jewish am I? And how American? How powerfully should I cling to the old tribe? How eagerly should I embrace those of other faiths and creeds? How can I preserve what is noble about the old yet embrace what is liberating about the new? Is that not the question of the next century across the fruited plain?

A natural spiritual leader, Jake's in line for the number one job at his West Side synagogue, which he has reinvigorated with youth and energy and wit and charisma. His problem: The mothers in the congregation keep trying to hook him up with their eager daughters (there's a very funny movie-within-a-movie about a blind date from Hell). His mother (Anne Bancroft) is a wonderful woman but culturally blinkered; she cannot forgive Jake's older brother, who married outside the faith, and by passive-aggressive means she effectively limits her younger son's choices. In the meantime, he and best friend Father Brian are working to build a cooperative Catholic-Jewish center for the elderly, a kind of Manhattan version of Columbia's famous Interfaith Center.

But then the two guys' oldest and dearest friend returns to New York. Again, Norton is displaying his equanimity. Elfman's Anna may be the only businessperson in American movies in two decades who isn't a greed-head corporate wrecker, despoiler and waster of the environment; she's a competent professional, extremely good at her job, but clearly a person who hasn't surrendered her humanity. In her radiant presence, more things than old memories stir. Anna is an El Greco portrait of a long tall beach gal, but with Elfman's indomitable wit, sparkle and erotic power. To see her is to love her, and in their own ways both Jake and Brian flip.

But only Anna has the freedom to act; as it turns out, she is equally attracted to Jake and they are soon making love by night while playing the friendly threesome with Brian by day. Brian has no idea this is going on, even though the loins he thought he'd tamed in his commitment to faith are suddenly beginning to heat up.

You see where this is going, and yes, it would be nice if it got there a little faster. The whole thing blows up in everybody's face and halfway through hour number two, nobody's speaking to anyone else. Love has been corroded by jealousy, need by fear, comfort by anger. It's the tribal America, writ small, that could be the death of us all; Norton hopes that our future lies in reconciliation, and the film's most moving passage watches as each member struggles with his inner demons and recommits to love and cooperation.

Alas, in writing this sort of review I make it seem like an infomercial for the Columbia Interfaith center. The truth is, "Keeping the Faith" is quite funny, if never truly dementedly hilarious. As a director, Norton has learned a lot from a previous boss, Woody Allen, and a lot of the humor is Allenesque: a priest who sets fire to his cassock, a rabbi who faints at a circumcision, a lot of neurotically tortured throwaway lines as the characters' deep neuroses speak loudly.

There's some solid pro comedy stuff, too, buried joke structures that pay off in the finale, one involving a Casanova across from Anna's office and a lobby security guard who monitors his zone the way an all-pro linebacker would.

In its small way, "Keeping the Faith" is full of good news.

KEEPING THE FAITH (127 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for mild sexual innuendo. Hmm, come to think of it, it's not so mild at all.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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