Natalie Portman's Directorial Debut & Paper Towns' Nat WolffBy Gerri Miller
See how Portman is making her big splash in Israel and don't miss Paper Towns with Nat WolffGo To Pop Culture
So this priest and this rabbi walk into a bar, right...?
Well, actually, in the new romantic comedy, Keeping the Faith , Father Brian (Edward Norton, who has appeared in Primal Fear and Everyone Says I Love You ), walks into the bar alone. Plastered, he recounts his relationship with Jake (Ben Stiller, who has appeared in There's Something about Mary ) and Anna (Jenna Elfman, star of TV's Dharma and Greg ), letting us know that the three had been childhood best friends from New York's Upper West Side until Anna moved away in the late 1970s.
Jake and Brian grew up, overcoming obviously loose parenting (kids in the 1970s riding the subway by themselves?) to become a rabbi and a priest. Still best friends, they swagger through Manhattan together in sunglasses and black leather jackets, kippa (yarmulke) and collar. Both have unconventional approaches to their professions (Jake brings in a gospel choir to liven up Ein Keloheinu , Brian hears confessions in Spanish and absolves an adolescent parishioner of his fascination with melones ), and both pack 'em into their respective houses of worship.
Brian, of course, is not married, but neither is Jake, which is a problem for his plan to replace the retiring head rabbi of his shul. Congregants attempt, unsuccessfully, to set him up with women, from the Jewish-female-stereotype (the funny Lisa Edelstein, of Sports Night , The West Wing ), to the smart, independent, beautiful TV journalist played by Rena Sofer.
Then Anna, now a super-successful consultant, comes back to town for an extended business trip, and it seems like old times for the three amigos, except that they're past puberty. Anna ends up in a fling with Jake, who apparently is as good a lover as he is at giving sermons, and thus will become an icon for Jewish men everywhere.
Problem: Anna's not Jewish, raising the thorny issues of 1) Jake's mom (Anne Bancroft - a.k.a. Mrs. Robinson), who stopped speaking with Jake's brother for marrying out of the faith, and 2) the synagogue, which would not take kindly to the relationship either. And then there's
Problem #2: Brian has also fallen for Anna.
I'd rate the film 7 out of 10 on the Jewish Credibility Scale. I was surprised to see a rabbi exclaim "Jesus!" but one rabbi I know admits to using that word "when it escapes my self-censoring mechanisms." One could also fault Bancroft's delivery of the prayer over the Shabbat candles (she's not Jewish, although her husband, director Mel Brooks, is), and when was the last time you saw the majority of the congregation arriving during the Kol Nidre prayer? But I quibble--the film has the most temple scenes I've seen in a mainstream film (it was filmed at Temple B'nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side of Manhattan) since The Jazz Singer and overall the tone is both good-natured and respectful of all religions.
Norton not only stars in but also directs this film and is pretty credible, particularly for a first-timer. That said, the movie could have benefited from less cutesy-pie comedy and on-the-nose music. Case in point: the Rick Springfield song "Jesse's Girl" is empirically funny, even more so when sung by a smarmy Vietnamese salesman demonstrating karaoke equipment to a priest and a rabbi (a great cameo by Ken Leung of Rush Hour ). But when it's timed to Jake and Brian's developing competition over Anna, it's overkill. Norton went to Yale and should know better.
And occasionally Norton directed like an actor, with scenes that seemed to be ad-libbed and led to deadening dialog like "That's what I was trying to tell you!" At least, I hope these lines were improvised. If they came from screenwriter Stuart Blumberg (a first-time film writer whose previous credits include Mad TV ), the producers should have exorcised them. Improvisation works when Woody Allen does it, but Norton's no Wood-man. Yet.
The film does feature Woody-worthy cameos, though, by top-flight actors including Holland Taylor (who won an Emmy playing spooky Judge Kittleson on The Practice ), Eli Wallach ( The Magnificent Seven , The Associate , and so many more films), Ron Rifkin ( L.A. Confidential , Tony winner for Cabaret ), Milos Forman (director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest , Amadeus and Man on the Moon ), and Donna Hanover (first lady of New York City). I suppose this is the truest testament to Norton's astonishing rise in Hollywood.
For all its levity, the film touches on some large issues, like tradition versus evolution in Judaism. At one point Wallach, as the head rabbi, tells Jake, "Tradition is not old habit. It's comforting to people." But others might argue that Jake's breaking of convention leads to full, energetic synagogues that are far better than empty, moribund ones.
Then there's the question of love, namely, what to do when the love of one's life is inappropriate. Can a rabbi marry a non-Jewish woman and keep his job? Should a priest shed his vows if he finds the right girl? Should a woman leave a successful career for a guy she loves?
To put it as the sages might have: "What would you do?"
Keeping the Faith opens 14 April 2000. Directed by Edward Norton. Written by Stuart Blumberg. Cast: Edward Norton, Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman, Anne Bancroft, Milos Forman, Ron Rifkin, Holland Taylor, Eli Wallach, Ken Leung, Rena Sofer, Lisa Edelstein. Rated PG-13.