Put down the popcorn, delay the Diet Coke, restrain the Raisinette — whatever it takes, do not have food in your mouth after the opening credits of this movie. Any eating during the first hour carries with it a serious risk of choking because you’ll be laughing so hard. You have been warned.
A drunken priest staggering into a bar to unburden his “big troubles” is a fitting opener for the brand of offbeat humor the moviegoer will encounter. Once he has the undivided attention of the Irish-Muslim-Jewish-Protestant bartender, the bizarre reason behind his troubles come pouring out: he’s somehow gotten involved in a love triangle. As one character in the film puts it, “He’s the priest whose best friend the rabbi stole his girlfriend.”
This unlikely scenario unfolds when, after a 15-year absence, Annie revisits New York on vacation. As kids the trio — Jake (Ben Stiller), Brian (Ed Norton), and Annie (Jenna Elfman, from TV’s “Dharma & Greg”) — had been inseparable. Now Jake is a local rabbi and Brian has entered the priesthood. Annie has grown into a sophisticated, high-powered executive who is also strikingly beautiful. At first the boys, who have remained best friends during her absence, don’t realize they are falling for her. But after a night of unexpected passion, Annie and Jake discover a spark between them. The trouble begins when they decide to keep the affair secret — not to mention that Jake feels pressured from his congregation (and his strong-willed mother) to marry a Jewish bride. She has already disowned his brother for marrying outside the faith. All the sneaking around is fun for a while, until, of course, Annie and Jake fall in love.
Things really get complicated when Brian, who has since fallen for Annie, discovers the affair and drunkenly reveals all before Jake’s entire congregation.
After the stuff hits the fan, several questions arise. Will Jake choose Annie over his faith? Can Brian re-embrace his vows after nearly abandoning them to pursue Annie? Will Brian and Jake’s friendship survive the betrayal?
Here the humor hits a speed bump. Suddenly, the “serious” issues start strangling the fun. The laughs don’t end completely, but its definitely becomes safe to eat.
Nevertheless, Keeping the Faith has many special moments. Norton, making his directorial debut, cleverly spoofs rituals from both religions while skillfully balancing the satire and slapstick. I also enjoyed the relationships between the central characters — the dynamics of romance complicating Jake and Brian’s lifelong friendship, the tense but loving relationship between Jake and his mother — and especially the smart and humorous religious commentary. The actors gave enjoyable and spirited performances highlighted by Jenna Elfman who possesses the charm to blossom into an electrifying screen personality, so keep an eye on her as a future superstar.
Despite these accolades, I can only give the movie a lukewarm recommendation. The viewer experiences an inevitable letdown when the truckloads of laughter suddenly slow to a trickle. The dramatic elements were interesting, but did not blend skillfully enough with the humor to render the film a complete success. For instance, Jake’s mom’s prejudices, instead of constantly injecting dire seriousness into the movie, could have been exploited to more humorous effect. In all, Keeping the Faith turns into only a slightly better-than-average romantic comedy.