They call themselves the God Squad: Father Brian Kilkenny Finn, played with dimpled charm by Edward Norton (who also makes his directing debut here), and Rabbi Jake Schram (Ben Stiller), a blue-eyed hunk in Manhattan black who--when he isn't sermonizing like a stand-up comedian--is fending off his Upper West Side synagogue's matchmakers (he calls them "the Kosher Nostra") and their single daughters.
"Keeping the Faith" was the idea of Stuart Blumberg, a comedy writer and former Yale friend of Norton's who, browsing in a bookstore one day, noticed several titles devoted to priest-and-rabbi jokes. "Even though it sounded hokey, I thought nobody had ever done a story about that before," Blumberg says. Norton encouraged him to develop the idea as a screenplay.
It is utterly refreshing to see a film in which the cool guys aren't Wall Street goons or heroin addicts (Stiller had the honor of playing the latter in the unwatchable "Permanent Midnight"), but rather a pair of spiritual souls devoted to tending their flocks. Norton and Stiller bring new meaning to the term "charismatic religion": They're appealing and sexy, without a trace of cynicism.
Blumberg delivers on the priest-rabbi shtick, packing the movie with religious one-liners ("God is lot like Blanche Dubois: He's always depended on the kindness of strangers"). And while Norton's direction can be plodding, he demonstrates a deftness for sight gags. Especially hilarious is an extended scene in which he cross-cuts between his character setting his vestments on fire while Stiller's white-faced Rabbi Schram observes his first circumcision.
Add a supporting cast that includes Eli Wallach as a wise rabbi, Anne Bancroft as Schram's Jewish mother, and Czech director Milos Forman as a priest, and this film could have been heaven--if not for its plot. To test his priest and rabbi, Blumberg comes up with a modern-day Eve in the form of Jenna Elfman, television's Dharma of "Dharma and Greg," here swathed in Helmut Lang, as their former childhood friend turned suave blond businesswoman. What follows is pure cinematic cliché: a love triangle that turns to predictable boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl.
It's the religious lives--not the loves--of these holy men that make this movie worth seeing. Just as the classic priest-and-rabbi joke makes us laugh because poking fun at the pious seems like the ultimate taboo, the humor here works for the same reason, though it's as broad as the Flying Nun's hat. It's hard to imagine a real priest telling his congregants to rent a Brad Pitt video as a Cliff Notes shortcut to the seven deadly sins, or a rabbi bringing a Harlem gospel choir into temple in order to turn up the volume.
The filmmakers did try to get the details right. They brought in two true clergymen--Father John Duffell and Rabbi Hillel Norry--as technical consultants. Rabbi Norry pointed out that no religious Jew would put on tefillin for morning prayers while in his underwear, prompting one script revision. Shot on location on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the movie also highlights the beauty of two real-life sanctuaries: the Church of the Ascension on West 107th Street, and B'nai Jeshurun synagogogue, with its mosaic-encrusted Byzantine interior, on West 88th.
Despite its weak plot, the movie has enough spirited performances and hilarious moments to keep the audience's faith. But enough about the movie. Heard the one about the swami and the monk? Could be a sequel in the making.