Comedy relies on differences, which is why sitcom couples are rarely two of a kind. Oscar loved Felix, Bridget loved Bernie, Dharma loves Greg because the superficial problems of opposites are the strike zone of punchlines. But for opposites to confront serious issues – really fundamental problems that can’t be jested away – laughs are rarely enough.
Keeping the Faith begins as a comedy about Brian (Edward Norton) and Jake (Ben Stiller), who were best friends as boys and who are now best friends as a charismatic priest (Norton, appealing in a clerical collar) and a groovy rabbi (Stiller, master of killer stand-up sermons), ministering to two of the more satisfied congregations of New York’s Upper West Side. When Anna (Jenna Elfman), a third childhood musketeer who moved away long ago, returns to Manhattan as a sleek businesswoman, she’s still so captivating (in her blond, Christian way) that she enchants her old boy friends all over again.
Only this time the gregarious gentile is loved by a rabbi (whose congregants expect him to marry within his faith) and a priest (whose parishioners expect him not to marry, period). Oy. Sweet Jesus. Cut to commercial. Only there is no commercial – just a scrambled approximation of the Beatles psalm ”All you need is love.” So while trying to be a deeper fable of religion and tolerance, ”Keeping the Faith” commits sins of romantic comedy as well as sins of spiritual tragedy.
Norton makes his directorial debut working from a script by his old Yale classmate Stuart Blumberg, and the two have a nice, easy handle on some of the daily rituals known to modern clergymen who live within delivery distance of the celebrated Manhattan delicatessen Zabar’s. Norton, particularly, projects an unforced goodness as a man of the cloth who’s also comfortable being a man of the neighborhood. He confesses the challenge Anna presents to his chastity in talks with a wise priestly mentor (Milos Forman), while Jake endures some typical no-chemistry kosher dates with a gym rat (Lisa Edelstein) and an overglamorous TV journalist (Rena Sofer). Although Elfman scampers like she’s wearing bells on her toes, we only have the filmmakers’ word that Anna is truly an irresistible life force – from all evidence, she’s so blithe that she doesn’t understand why it’s a big deal for Jake to go interfaith.
”The fact that you’re not Jewish is a real problem for me,” says Jake to Anna, like it’s something he’s required to ”get past.” (Or, for that matter, that she’s required to accommodate.) And of course, in sitcoms, it is. But ”Keeping the Faith” proposes heavy theological aims, then disavows any such thing. The unsettling conclusion to be drawn is that the truly devout (i.e., loving) man is the one willing to overturn deeply held principles and responsibilities for the sake of romance, and that friends, family, and flock are always willing to say amen in the name of happy endings and ecumenical laughs.