Brian (Edward Norton) and Jake (Ben Stiller) have been best friends since childhood. Both are also men of faith and fairly young in leading their respective congregations – Brian as a priest, and Jake as a rabbi. Whereas Brian is obviously unable to form romantic relationships, Jake is doing everything in his power to avoid them, frequently overwhelmed and put off by the mothers of his synagogue trying to set him up with their single daughters.
Brian and Jake get a blast from the past when their third childhood best friend Anna (Jenna Elfman) calls to reconnect. The three were inseparable in eighth grade, but then Anna’s family moved to California and they sadly lost touch. But Anna is going to be in New York for work and wants to see them. Anna is now a successful, beautiful woman with a fierce sense of independence. This also means she has no time for relationships, claiming she instead has a relationship with her phone. There is no awkward transition here. The three fall back into a comfortable rapport and it’s like Anna never left. Except the three are now grown adults and the childhood crushes Brian and Jake both clearly harbored for Anna are back in full force, except with a hell of a lot more complications.
Keeping the Faith is driven by spirituality, morals, and how religion may or may not define the characters. It’s set up as a romantic love triangle, with Jake and Anna dealing with their feelings for each other despite the fact that (gasp) Anna is not Jewish. Meanwhile, oblivious to Jake and Anna’s secret relationship, he also finds himself attracted to her and questioning the vows he took to devote his life to God and ministering.
I’ve seen this movie a handful of times over the years but this was the viewing where I was really feeling that 2+ hours runtime. The movie starts off strong with the trio’s friendship, as well as Brian and Jake’s journey to devoting their lives to their religions. I enjoyed the dynamic not only between the trio but between Brian and Jake as well. Unfortunately as soon as Jake and Anna start having sex, Brian sort of takes a backseat to the story and it becomes more about Anna and Jake’s relationship and the complications it creates. The fact that a priest is suddenly questioning his path because of a woman is an interesting one, but it’s barely touched upon until Anna and Jake implode and Anna needs a shoulder to cry on (aka Brian).
It becomes more of a romantic dramedy, losing some of its sharp wittiness towards the end as the characters struggle with their faith and love for each other. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the film feel a bit uneven and confusing in tone.
The upside is that Stiller, Elfman, and Norton all give strong performances, which is part of what makes Keeping the Faith such a charming movie, despite its flaws. It’s not afraid to poke fun at religion while maintaining its message, and Brian and Jake are both progressive with their beliefs even when it rubs the more traditional, older members of their congregation the wrong way. Anna makes no apologies for her career, and she shouldn’t. She’s also confident enough in herself and her capabilities that she doesn’t struggle with her feelings for Jake. She wants what she wants and she puts it out there with very little hesitance. I suppose one could say it’s not fair that Anna would put her career on the back burner to pursue her relationship with Jake, but it’s her decision to do so, not Jake forcing her into a corner or ultimatum. In fact, Jake is ecstatic for her when she reveals she was offered a huge promotion, even knowing it would take her back to California for good. It’s Anna’s choice to stay for Jake, which I appreciated.
Norton does a fine job in his directorial debut and I was stunned to find this was the only film he directed (up until this year’s Motherless Brooklyn). Elfman and Stiller have fine chemistry, but so does Elfman and Norton. For that matter, so does Norton and Stiller! Can’t they all just fall in love and be happy?
The supporting cast is wonderful, most notably Anne Bancroft as Jake’s strong, stubborn mother Ruth, and Eli Wallach as Rabbi Lewis, who loves Jake’s improvisational style in the synagogue and also helps guide Jake spiritually. Holland Taylor, Ron Rifkin, and Ken Leung all provide laughs and there is a memorable cameo by Lisa Edelstein as a gym obsessed Jewish woman who is bound and determined to get Jake up to her bedroom after their not-so-great date.
The movie strikes a nice balance between sweet and zany and despite feeling maybe twenty minutes too long, it’s a really endearing romantic comedy about the endurance of faith and friendships.