It's the oldest setup line in jokedom: "A rabbi and a priest walk into a bar and ..." Yet the same premise, tweaked and teased in "Keeping the Faith," makes for anything but a tired, dull response. Instead, it's a funny, bright, witty and, above all, cute romantic comedy.
And a slick little directing debut for its star, noted actor Edward Norton. Ben Stiller plays the rabbi, one of those with-it theologians who actually says, "But seriously, folks," to his congregation. He's not unctuous about it, though, and seems like a charming fellow.
This opinion is confirmed by his best pal, the priest (Norton), who has similar ideas about keeping the church as relevant as MTV and basketball. Enter Jenna Elfman, their long-absent mutual childhood friend and all-time great babe, invading their Upper West Side turf for a few months as part of her stellar career as an investment tycoon.
Who gets the girl?
Part of what expands that question into delightful viewing is the attractiveness of the actors themselves: Stiller, despite his reputation as a comic, has always had a dark side (see "Permanent Midnight" for an extreme view). Here, he uses that darkness to shade his decision-making as to whether a rabbi and a shiksa can make good partners.
Norton, in a lesser role, shows comedic skills not often visible in movies like American History X or Rounders. He manages to make a priest's struggles with chastity, well, funny. And Elfman, bless her TV sitcom soul, is the Everyman's girl who got away -- saucy, bouncy and charming, she does to a movie what Carole Lombard used to do.
But the real star is Stuart Blumberg, a playwright buddy of Norton's who in his film debut spices what could easily have been a cliché collection into a tart, bright stew. Even when we can see the finish in sight (no flaw in this well-worn genre), Blumberg still makes it more than a downhill slide. His story's middle, and this could be the fault of first-time director Norton, sags unnecessarily as we learn far more about Stiller's dilemma than we need to know.
But that's not a fatal error and, stacked against the attributes of this date-friendly, grown-up-friendly cast and script, it hardly seems to matter. Stiller moves out of alternative comedy with this role; Elfman steps up from "Darma & Greg"; and Norton becomes a director. Nothing old about that.
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