Keeping The Faith
Written by Stuart Blumberg; Directed by Edward Norton

The directing debut from Academy Award nominated actor Edward Norton, is a slight but pleasing romantic comedy. With enough of an involvement in real emotional issues to make it more than an instantly-forgetable two-hours escape and enough loose ends to make give its confectionery sweetness some stick-to-your-consciousness intellectual nutrition, it is an adept and satisfying effort.

The story, by first-time screenwriter Stuart Blumberg, concerns a romantic triangle - something akin to Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim updated for the first decade of the twenty-first century. But since it is not a French film, no one commits suicide. Rather, with an optimism that seems brave and engaging in this otherwise rather cynical period (and that harks back to the mood of the romantic comedies of the 1930s) the film leaves us with the suggestion that problems may actually be worked out, and the characters have a possibility - and certainly every intention - of living happily (or at least interestingly) ever after.

The participants in this triangular relationship are three childhood friends, Brian, played by Norton, his friend Jake, played by Ben Stiller, and their mutual childhood sweetheart, Anna (Jenna Elfman). Separated while still in the early stages of puberty by the vagaries of American life (Anna's father is transferred to a job far away), the memory of their innocent rapport remains with all three of them, and survives as an underpinning of the ongoing friendship between Brian and Jake.

In the course of time, Jake becomes a Rabbi, and Brian a Roman Catholic priest. But their friendship transcends their theological divergence, and the fact that they have both chosen to become spiritual leaders in their communities gives them a common ground. Their shared enthusiasm for trying to reveal and enliven the spiritual side of their congregations' everyday lives puts them into a kind of ecumenical partnership.

The ordinary difficulties of their lives - which involve Brian's adjustment to the demands of the priesthood and the discomfort caused to some influential members of the synagogue by Jake's radical approach to the worship process - are compounded by the re-introduction of Anna into their lives. Now a high-powered business-management specialist who lives attached to her phone, she reenters their lives as an element of their childhood and their fantasies suddenly made real.

The easy empathy the three had as children is reassumed, but with the added overtones of the sexual overlay of adult life - as well as its professional and social complications. These include the fact that Brian has taken a vow of celibacy, and that Jake, as a rabbi, is expected to marry within his faith. Anna (Reilly) is clearly not on the short list of candidates.

The bulk of the film's plot examines these complications and their eventual "resolution." But, unlike most romantic comedies, Keeping The Faith doesn't try to tie every loose end up into a neat, self-contained package. The threads it leaves dangling make it seem much less mechanical than most films in the genre - more like the beginning of a story than a fully-explored and rationalized narrative.

This is part of the film's strength. It recognizes what film does best - present images - and allows itself to do that. In a two hour film, there isn't time - as there is in a 500 page novel - to explore deeply. Themes and characters must be communicated by implication, and the audience allowed to fill in the enormous blank spaces with their own imagination. This is why so many epic stories become lifeless on screen - the filmmakers try to tell the audience too much.

Younger filmmakers like Norton, who grew up in the age of experimental and auteurist film, are more understanding that film, like any other work of art, can be a provocation, a stimulant, a "jumping off place" for the audience rather than an artificially neat, mechanical toy, to be played with briefly and discarded.

It is this leap beyond the literalism of the filmed image - enabled by the literalism of filmed images, that allows us to relate to them on a visceral level without processing our reactions - that is exciting here, even in so light a vehicle. There is no didactic philosophizing - just men and women trying to make sense out of the complications of their lives.

The fact that both the men have dedicated their lives to a spiritual service, for instance, is presented in a completely matter-of-fact way, not because it is irrelevant to the story, but because it is so obviously central that it needs no added emphasis. In fact, the most difficult and painful of the issues - Brian's struggle with the conflict between his sexuality and his spiritual path, and Jake's similar but distinct internal strife over the conflicting demands of his family and religious traditions and his relationship with Anna - are treated with respect and insight as well as humor, but without the exaggerated weight that often makes such issues seem contrived in film.

Because of the film's casual tone, it is the characters who have to carry audience interest. Norton shines here, as a director who understands how acting works, by allowing his actors to work to a minimalist standard and by putting character ahead of plot. He doesn't try to show us "why" the characters are who they are. He is content to let them show themselves and allow us to draw our own conclusions. By ignoring exposition, he allows more time for his characters to present those little tics and singularities of personality that give them a palpable third dimension - something often lacking in films of this genre - or in most films genre for that matter.

The performances, his own and those of Stiller and Elfman - as well as some lovely work in supporting roles by Eli Wallach, Milos Forman, Anne Bancroft, Ken Leung and Brian George, among others, are what raise the film well above the run of the mill. They show an understanding of the fact that it is character, not plot, that makes a narrative compelling, and they make the comic set pieces more engaging - because they are happening to people we know and care about.

Norton is low-key and never self-indulgent in his role. He has a couple of wonderful slap-stick bits that showcase his talent for physical comedy. A quiet scene with Milos Forman, as his confessor, allows him a poignant reflection on the shifting balance of commitment and doubt in the life Brian keeps on choosing. But he doesn't fall prey to the temptation to underline or inflate his work out of the modest proportions of the overall story.

Stiller, whose comic timing is as sharp here as it always is, also has time to show a more emotionally balanced, deeply-connected character. His scenes with Bancroft - and some with Elfman as well - have a bittersweet edge that adds an important element to his comic persona.

Elfman gets to be far more than just set-dressing here. Although her physical presence and sexual energy are pivotal to her character, it is the sense of aliveness, of an androgynous energy that survives from her tomboy past, that is her real attraction to the two men. Her Anna is neither the victim of circumstances nor the master of them. Rather, she conveys the sense that she is struggling gamely, and with compassion and humor and on an equal footing with her two male counterparts, with a complex and confusing situation.

The writing is also noteworthy. The easy-going, naturalistic dialogue underscores the film's unassuming tone. Several key scenes have no meaningful dialogue at all, allowing us to simply see and appreciate the characters through the vision of them presented. The plot isn't over-stressed, allowing incident, issue and character to dominate over any artificial "dramatic arc." This kind of minimalism is difficult to achieve, and Blumberg shows great promise in this first work.

The film has the obvious gloss of a professional production. With an eye on mainstream success, and probably also an intelligent restraint in not trying to bite off too much in a first directorial effort, Norton doesn't introduce any fancy tricks or visual signatures. He contents himself with effective, rather conventional framing and camera work, subordinating the technical aspects of filmcraft to his dramatic purpose.

And the choice works. It is totally in keeping with the unpretentious and affectionate style of story-telling he adopts. It is this eye-on-the-doughnut concentration, with the lack of self-indulgence and broad overstatement, that makes the film as satisfying as it is. If this is a slight film, it is so by choice, a simple amusing story, simply and amusingly told. With the lighthearted charm of this film, Norton proves the value of doing something simple - but not necessarily easy - very well.


That's my take on it. What's yours?