Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman, Edward Norton, Brian George, Milos Forman
If you have to believe in something, you might as well believe in love.
Is "Keeping the Faith" a film that really just plays better for that most extreme of minority groups...preachers who are desperately trying to get married, get laid or both?
"Keeping the Faith" is an odd little romantic comedy starring Edward Norton and Ben Stiller as a sort of pastoral dynamic duo. Norton is a Catholic priest (Father Brian), while Stiller plays his Jewish rabbi counterpart (Rabbi Jake). They grew up childhood friends, along with Anna, a precocious girl who was their defender and confidante. Of course, the inevitable childhood trauma happens...Anna moves away.
Fast forward to several years later...Anna (Jenna Elfman)calls up Brian out of the blue and the real journey begins.
There are many reasons why "Keeping the Faith" doesn't really work...
It's a comedy that's not that funny.
It's a romantic film that makes you squirm in your seat as you watch a rabbi and a priest deal with feelings and issues and morals.
It's a calm, peaceful film that actually does very little with a potential hotbed of hilarity storyline.
Almost nothing happens here. The dramatic tension isn't actually that dramatic...even the played for heavy comedy situations seem amazingly friendly and easygoing.
The acting is not brilliant, the script is rather basic...the production design is simple and even the music is such a companion to the film that it's often barely noticeable.
So, how can a film with so many deep flaws be recognized as an A- AND with a place in my Top 100? Have I simply lost my ability to critically analyze a film? Do I secretly harbor Edward Norton, Jenna Elfman or Ben Stiller fantasies? Maybe, NO and OH YES!
The truth is if I rated this film solely on the basis of life impact...of its replay factor then it would likely be my Top film or at least in my Top 10. It is, without a doubt, one of my absolutely favorite films. I have watched "Keeping the Faith" well over 20 times, and each time I have laughed, been moved and been inspired in so many different ways that I've lost track.
Is it the inside jokes that you can't possibly get unless you live a life in ministry? Nope, let's be honest...the film didn't get that deep.
Instead, I believe it's the casual way that we are introduced to everyday characters. Perhaps this 2000 film came at a bad time to humanize Catholic priests? I mean, when we're just starting to learn the severity of the issue of Catholicism and molestation it's not the best timing to introduce a film where the priest struggles with real human feelings, sexual desire and "GASP!" falling in love.
Yet, Norton brings such an utter sincerity to this role that what could have been melodramatic or caricaturish is completely convincing. As a minister, one of my biggest adjustments came in the "morals" department...I went from someone who could have a threesome in the Wal-Mart parking lot with Becky and her mother to someone whose every flirtation and kiss seems recorded for eternity. Likewise, because of the depth of Norton's performance here...it brought up the VERY REAL issues of how does one deal with celibacy and sexuality when one is married to God? Does the film solve the issue? Not at all, but it's perhaps one of the most honest portrayals of the reality of the issue. Father Brian isn't a sicko destined to molest children...he's not into breaking his vows or hiding his feelings...he's trying desperately to deal with them, seeks counsel and tries to sort out how every vow and commitment in the world didn't keep him from "these feelings." It's yet another challenge the film faced in success...this much pain and frustration can't possibly exist in a romantic comedy.
Likewise, Stiller, is under the microscope as a Jewish rabbi trying to move up in his congregational role but hindered by being "single." The pressure is reversed as he is under pressure to get married. When I recently switched denominations, I found it hilarious that on the first day of membership the pastor actually mentioned someone in the congregation who would be a perfect match for me. Magnify that times 10 and you get Rabbi Jake's issue...it seems he has little hope of moving up unless he's married, but he has to balance his own humanity with the countless members of his Temple who wish to fix him up. (with often hilarious results).
Then, finally, there's Anna. Power and money have become her sex, and yet Elfman never lets her become just about those things. She's always richly human...we still see the chemistry that has existed all these years, even though the roles have changed dramatically.
The chemistry between these three is strong, and watching the way their relationships develop over time is funny, a touch sad but always interesting.
At times, Anna's the mature, spiritually insightful one...especially as her dynamics with Jake change...at times, Brian is the balanced and reasonable one...even Jake has his moments where he's so clearly devoted to his congregation and his chosen path that, while his horrid choices are obvious, it's hard not to feel his pain and confusion.
So many dynamic, serious issues...not played for laughs, not played for drama...just played out. They are played out like everyday life...a touch of humor, a touch of sadness, a touch of grief, a touch of stupidity...
There are so many "scenes" in this film that make me smile...The opening scene with the bartender who reveals his own background towards the end...the scenes of the trio as children...the Jewish Hall of Fame trading cards...the karaoke store scene...the preaching scenes...I could, quite literally, go on and on and on.
The supporting cast is equally wonderful, if unwritten. Anne Bancroft dazzles as Jake's mother, Eli Wallach sparkles as an elder rabbi, and most of Jake's "dates" are played out comically and wonderfully.
The soundtrack is marvelous, and often funny (especially the wonderfully utilized Barry Manilow). Yet, what I truly appreciate about "Keeping the Faith is that it defies the stereotypes...nobody is actually how they seem...in fact, they are all richly human with strengths, weaknesses, wants, needs and desires. They are all at crossroads in their lives and facing the distinct possibility that they may have made a few bad choices along the way. The high-powered corporate woman is, in fact, deeply spiritual, insightful and capable of intense, magnificent love...the Catholic priest realizes that being married to God doesn't cut one off from the human experience of feelings and relationships...the Jewish rabbi begins to see that true love can't be confined within a faith or a path or an "image".
These three, through all their struggles, maintain a simple humanity about them that allows one to bond with them, care about them and wish the best for them.
"Keeping the Faith" is, indeed, my favorite kind of film. It's a film that celebrates its characters despite all their quirks and weaknesses and bad choices. It's a film that celebrates the journeys of life, not by dramatizing or minimizing them, but by presenting human beings as we really are...inherently funny, sporadically tragic, often hurting but somehow always surviving and thriving until the next day.
I've seen many brilliant films in my life, but when it comes down to it I'd rather watch "Keeping the Faith."
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic