Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:09 - Released 4/14/00

We have all heard some priest/rabbi stories in our time, but Keeping The Faith, directed by Edward Norton and written by Stuart Blumberg, may be the best I've ever encountered. It's real, it's heartwarming, it's intelligent, and the chemistry between its three leads (Norton, Ben Stiller, and Jenna Elfman) is the most electric I've seen in ages. Norton, having shown his acting talent before in Primal Fear, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and American History X (all three of which garnered him award nominations), shows immense promise in his first outing as director/producer; Stiller, best known for his self-named TV show and There's Something About Mary, shows he is able to meet the challenge of a more serious romantic lead; and Elfman, currently appearing in the popular TV show Dharma & Greg, is the perfect third in this quirky triangle. Although its trailers make it look like a silly comedy about an unlikely love affair, Blumberg's script for Keeping The Faith touches on some untrodden ground, weaving modern American work ethics with some fasinating social and religious issues. And an unlikely love affair.

Jake, Brian, and Anna were the three best friends in their New York City elementary school. Dubbing themselves "two micks and a yid," they were inseparable until her family suddenly moved to L.A. and the boys were left alone. Cut to 20 or so years later. Having lost contact with Anna, Jake and Brian, who are still best friends, become the most popular and controversial rabbi and priest in New York City, approaching their jobs in the style of stand-up comedians. Although their new-age approach doesn't always thrill their older colleagues, they achieve a kind of local fame, increasing the sizes of their congregations until they're packing every seat (or pew). And then Anna comes back into town.

Anna, who has changed from a freckle-faced 10-year-old to a smart, savvy, sexy professional woman, is in town to work on a local project for her company. Although her business consulting occupation, which renders her too busy for a social life, is never clearly discussed, she refers to herself as "a plumber who fixes leaky corporations." Her arrival, and the resulting rebirth of mutual love between the three, causes them all to wonder if their life path choices were made in error.

While the idea of a rabbi falling in love with a Gentile, or a priest considering giving up the cloth to pursue romance, or an upwardly mobile professional deciding to chuck it all for love, may be trite, conventional elements, somehow Blumberg's script makes it all seem workable, and Norton's deft direction draws out the charm in these three actors. Although Elfman had not particularly impressed me before (Krippendorf's Tribe is definitely not a good showcase), her magnetism is irresistable. She and Norton and Stiller are able to capture somehow on film the kind of fun, easy pleasure derived from being with a best friend, and the awkward discomfort that is inevitable when sex enters the picture. Also notable are supporting performances by Anne Bancroft as Jake's mother, Eli Wallach as the mature but sympathetic Rabbi Lewis, and noted director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Man On The Moon) as the wise, ever-forgiving Father Havel.

Lastly, this film is not just a romance, although it can function on that level. Keeping The Faith also deals with many complex religious issues; the sermons are some of the most important, interesting sections to watch. It's a unique blend of charisma, wisdom, and emotion, rendered in a most appealing package. ****½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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