Stop me if you've heard this one. You see, there's a priest and a rabbi who've been friends since they were kids. When their other childhood friend, who's now a grown woman, returns into their lives, both men find themselves falling for her. This is despite one having taken a vow of celibacy and the other facing outside pressure to date and marry within his faith.
Okay, maybe that's not much of a joke and it certainly doesn't have much of a punch line. It is, however, the main gist and most of the exposition found in "Keeping the Faith," an amusing, charming and occasionally hilarious look at life, love, and religion in New York's Upper West Side. Although the main plot isn't inherently that outrageously funny, the way in which the story is told - just like a good, but familiar joke - is what's important.
Marking the directorial debut of costar Edward Norton, the film succeeds at that, although it does have somewhat of a reserved and/or cautious feel to it, which isn't that uncommon for works from first-time filmmakers. That said, it does come off as an accomplished and mostly fault free effort, and puts a varied, fresh coat of paint on the old triangular romantic relationship comedy plot found in classic films such as "The Philadelphia Story."
Working from Stuart Blumberg's original and first produced screenplay, Norton obviously isn't in a hurry to race through the story and wisely doesn't try to slam dunk the film's humor or charm down the viewer's throat, both of which work to his and the film's advantage. While a few superfluous moments here and there could have been excised without any dire consequences, the film's casual pace gives it the feel of films from yesteryear, and that's a good thing.
Although the picture never quite develops its triangular relationship in the comedic way many will probably expect, it is filled with plenty of small bits of humor -- such as a rabbi calling some Jewish mothers the "Kosher Nostra" for their efforts of pressuring him to date their eligible daughters, and that same rabbi having Jewish trading cards (like those for football or baseball) when he was a kid - that keep things highly entertaining.
Where Norton and his trio of lead performers wonderfully succeed, however, is in creating a completely believable and immediately established friendship among the three main characters. While such relationships in some films never feel true and/or come off as stilted and forced or take a long time to develop or never do so at all, Norton and his cast get it correct right from the beginning.
That chemistry is obviously important for the plot developments that follow, mainly that of the two men falling for their female friend. As a result, humor naturally follows that plot development, as does a decent array of dramatic moments as the two men try to come to grips with their feelings toward her, each other, and their respective religious callings.
Pulling double duty, the incredibly talented and twice-Oscar nominated Edward Norton ("American History X," "Primal Fear") inhabits what's probably the film's most demanding role. While he doesn't exactly play the most convincing drunk (in the moments that call for that) and the lightweight comedic and dramatic moments certainly aren't as demanding as what he's had to play in the past, he nonetheless delivers a performance that's both credible and enjoyable.
As his counterpart, Ben Stiller ("Mystery Men," "There's Something About Mary") is also rather entertaining in the troubled rabbi role and finally gets a character with a little more depth to it than that found in some of his more recent comedic creations. Meanwhile, Jenna Elfman ("EdTV," TV's "Dharma and Greg") shines as the harried businesswoman for whom both men fall. Not only should her performance further her position in sealing more leading roles in romantic comedies, but it also goes one step further to erase memories of her appearing in "Krippendorf's Tribe."
The supporting characters are played by an impressive group of performers including Anne Bancroft ("The Graduate," "The Miracle Worker") in a well-written and far from stereotypical overbearing mother role, Eli Wallach ("The Magnificent Seven," "How the West Was Won") as a compassionate rabbi, and Academy Award winning director Milos Forman ("One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest," "Amadeus") in an extended cameo as Brian's priestly confidant.
While the film starts off with a fun, narrative-driven opening, concludes with a funny and warm & fuzzy ending, and has plenty of charming and amusing moments in between, it does start to lag a bit in its third act during the typical "we don't get along now" period found in most romantic comedies. Fortunately, that doesn't derail the film or rob it of all of its momentum, but those are the moments - notwithstanding their necessity to the overall plot - that could have been edited down without much damage to the complete film.
Even so, that's one of the few flaws found in an otherwise solidly constructed film. Although it's still too early to say whether Norton will develop into a filmmaker like Warren Beatty (who directs the mostly highly acclaimed features in which he appears) or follow the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger (TV's "Breakfast in Connecticut") or even Marlon Brando ("One-Eyed Jacks") who decided that their forte was in acting and not directing, "Keeping the Faith" is certainly an impressive and well-mounted freshman effort. As such, the film rates as a 7.5 out of 10.