* Keeping the Faith (PG-13)
Who doesn't like the gifted young actor Edward Norton? And who would besmirch his first directorial effort -- a light-hearted, well-intended, funny, heartwarming and self-consciously politically correct romantic comedy? Not me.
I adore Norton's all-American-boy quality and the kind intelligence behind those unremarkable, squinty eyes. I thought his performance in last year's Fight Club was woefully neglected by the powers that be and hand out prizes. Now Norton comes forward with Keeping the Faith, a sweet Gen-X piece in which three childhood best friends -- Brian (Norton), Jake (Ben Stiller) and Anna (Jenna Elfman) -- are reunited at the crest of real adulthood, just as they turn 30.
Brian has, in the intervening years, become a Catholic priest and Jake has become a rabbi, while Anna has risen like a nuclear-charged rocket in the corporate world. When Anna returns from California to her former home, New York City, Jake and Brian hook back up with her, and both of them immediately fall hopelessly in love.
The complications of any possible connubial union are obvious. Father Brian would have to forsake his vows; Rabbi Schram cannot marry a shiksa and, meanwhile, all the mothers in his synagogue are trying to hook him up with their single Jewish daughters; and Anna, well, she has misplaced her love and commitment values in the years she has devoted to succeeding in business. The resulting complications echo classic screwball romances of the 1940s, adding a contemporary twist -- think Carole Lombard, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, move the calendar up to the beginning of the new millennium, plant a cell phone in Lombard's hand, embrace New York City in the full bloom of springtime with a loving camera, add the delightful notion of two male friends who actually talk to each other, and you'll get the picture.
A few minor quibbles: Had Norton not been directing, he might have noticed that he allowed himself to overact in the scene where Brian confronts Anna and begins swinging around a bottle of whiskey in her apartment. A seasoned director would have quietly removed the bottle from his hand and made the point more subtly. And a more emotionally distanced director might have insisted that both actors, Norton and Stiller, lose their chic, spiked and bleached hairdos, given that they are, in fact, playing a priest and a rabbi. And did we really need Jake's sappy sermon in which he confesses to his congregation in such a touchy-feely way? It felt out of character.
That said, watching Keeping the Faith was largely a delight. The three young actors maintain a believable, warm rapport throughout the film, and their story is absolutely endearing. Charming supporting performances by Anne Bancroft as Jake's mom, Milos Forman as head priest and Brian's mentor, and Eli Wallach as the rabbi who guides Jake, ground the film and lend it gravity. I especially loved the scene where Forman explains to Brian how priests fall in love from time to time and are continually challenged to make a choice to recommit to a celibate life.
Keeping the Faith won't knock your socks off, but it will surely entertain. And in the process, it raises issues of faith, loyalty and trust in a humorous and winning way.