Originally written for The Occidental.
So, a drunk priest walks into a bar….
Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, eh? Well, actually, it’s the beginning of “Keeping the Faith,” the story of a priest (Edward Norton), a rabbi (Ben Stiller), and the woman they love (Jena Elfman). That also sounds like a bad joke, but as premises for a film go, it’s not too shabby. Unfortunately, “Keeping the Faith” doesn’t quite live up to its potential.
Most of the film is told in flashback form, as Father Brian Finn (Norton, who also directed) tells a bartender the story of his life, starting with his childhood. Brian, Jacob Schram, and Anna Reilly were best friends growing up, until her father got a job in another state and she moved away. Both boys were devoted to their own respective religions, but intrigued by each others’, and both wound up going to seminary schools. Jake (Stiller) became a rabbi, Brian became a priest. They remained friends, earning the nickname “the God squad” and working together to found a senior center while trying to “shake things up” in their congregations.
When Anna (Elfman), who is now a high-powered businesswoman, comes back into their lives, she has the impact of a barrel of gunpowder. The events which ensue culminate in Brian’s drinking spree, among other things.
“Keeping the Faith” has a number of strengths. To begin with, its cast is absolutely wonderful. Norton and Stiller handle their characters’ combined comedy and serious faith quite well. Both are capable actors (it’s hard to believe Norton is the same guy who played a neo-Nazi in “American History X”), and handle the different tones of their scenes well. Elfman manages to be more believable in her celphone-toting executive role than many Hollywood stars would be, and is likewise able to handle the combination of mischief and high-powered business her character embodies.
There are also plenty of jokes and serious moments in the film that work well. It pokes fun at both Catholicism and Judaism, but also takes them seriously in the way that only someone who can laugh at their faith is able to do. The sermons preached by both Jake and Brian are heartfelt and actually somewhat inspiring. They are certainly more interesting than many sermons I have heard myself, in part because they start out with humor and end with serious philosophy.
Unfortunately, the incredible variety of themes and attitudes which “Keeping the Faith” tries to cover keep it from succeeding even as they demonstrate its strengths. This film has elements of slapstick comedy, intellectual comedy, romance, drama, and religious philosophy all mixed up together, and the differing elements never quite gel. There are many scenes which work very well – in fact, most of the film’s individual moments do work – but there is no sense of the whole, and the overall effect is somewhat disorienting.
As a result, trying to give the bottom line on “Keeping the Faith” is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. The acting is impeccable. It has many terrific moments. But it just doesn’t come together into a coherent film. I can say this, however: if you can’t laugh at Catholicism or Judaism, this is not the film for you; but if you like a good chuckle and enjoy watching actors do a good job with what they’re given, you may like “Keeping the Faith.”