Keeping the Faith could legitimately be labeled a rehash. In the romantic comedy genre, it tosses in gentle religious jokes by having the rivals for the heroine’s attentions be a coupleof thirty-something clerics – a rabbi and a priest, of course. That way you double the amount of potential joke material, even if the jokes – you’ve seen them in the trailers – are as old as passing out at a ritual circumcision or choking on incense. And, surely, Keeping the Faith has its share of obvious and predictable plotting, characters, and slapstick silliness. Picking up an unexpectedly heavy suitcase is physical comedy straight from old vaudeville routines. And how many times has one party to a lovers’ spat stormed out of the door, only to return because he’s stormed out of his own apartment? (That one is so unoriginal that it must be assumed it was intended as a clever allusion, but it just comes off as stale.)
And yet… because the film doesn’t have an ounce of pretension to being more than a crowd-pleasing, light entertainment, and because it is so well cast with engaging young actors and a couple of aging, but canny veterans, it turns out to be an amiable lark. Ben Stiller (Black and White, There’s Something About Mary, ) is the young rabbi whose best friend since childhood is now a Catholic priest, played by Edward Norton (Fight Club, American History X). (Norton also makes a competent, if uninspired, directing debut here.)
Enter Anna Reilly (Jenna Elfman, best known for the Dharma & Greg television series) as their eighth-grade buddy who moved away, but is back in New York on an extended business visit. She’s a confident and successful corporate executive complete with ever-present cell phone (cell phone schtick up to here). With Norton bound to celibacy and Reilly a presumably unsuitable match for a rabbi, the plot mechanism slips into all the expected places. It’s updated with contemporary targets (exercise freaks, new age psycho-babble, electronics salesmen) and the camera has its own love affair with New York, providing backgrounds that make you want to jump on the next plane.
Eli Wallach, a great American actor, has less to do than one might wish in the role of a senior rabbi; he does it with the skill of an old pro. Anne Bancroft plays (what else?) the rabbi’s mother; it’s a variation on the stock role of the sophisticated, but still-very-Jewish mother. But Bancroft fleshes out the character and gives it life. And in a pivotal scene (which will not be spoiled here), she becomes every son’s wish fulfillment Mom – unconditional love combined with a touch of hard-learned wisdom. It works beautifully and adds some substance to the pleasant fluff that makes up the bulk of the movie.
Norton, as director, lets the film go on much too long at two hours. The final scenes are redundant and anticlimactic. But why should anyone expect judicious cutting and tightening from a first-timer, when just about every major studio film released this year has suffered from undisciplined bloat?