But Keeping the Faith is as squishy and strained as Norton's acting is usually forceful and natural. There's plenty of potential in a story about the friendship between a young priest and a rabbi, but Faith's unlikely love triangle merely drapes spiritual trappings around the cliches of a toothless Hollywood romantic comedy.
Only occasionally does Stuart Blumberg's screenplay convey the complexities of the spiritual life. In one of the rare, insightful exchanges, Rabbi Jake Schram (Ben Stiller) says that as a rabbi, he's perceived as the kind of Jew other Jews would be if they had the time. Father Brian Finn (Norton) replies that he's the kind of Catholic other Catholics would be if they had the discipline.
But mostly the film trades in predictable stereotypes. In the first scene, Father Brian gets drunk in an Irish bar, while Jake, as an eligible bachelor, is forever fending off match-making mothers at his synagogue. "They're like the Kosher Nostra," he remarks in one of the film's typical puns. In the early montage of Jake and Brian's respective religious instruction, we see the slapstick given away by the movie's trailers: Jake fainting at a bris, Brian catching his robes on fire in church, etc.
Since this is an A-list movie, it's not enough for Brian and Jake to be smart, savvy religious leaders, they are celebrities as well. They pack in their congregations and in their sermons josh like stand-up comics. They're even partners in an odd venture, collaborating on an inter-faith, Jewish/Catholic senior citizen's center and karaoke bar. (Ken Leung has a scene-stealing moment mangling "Jessie's Girl" as a karaoke machine salesman.) If only they were roommates, Keeping the Faith would be a weekly TV sitcom.
Things change with a visit from Anna (Jenna Elfman), the boys' eighth-grade pal, "like a magical cross between Johnny Quest and Tatum O'Neal in Foxes." A corporate executive in town for a deal, Anna renews their long-lost friendship and then complicates it. Anna and Jake become lovers, but keep it a secret. Since she's a gentile, the relationship could offend Jake's synagogue, not to mention his prying mother (Anne Bancroft). They also keep Brian in the dark, and the priest begins to question his vow of chastity whenever Anna's around.
Elfman seems to be the actress you cast when Lisa Kudrow turns you down, and she seems the wrong choice for Anna. Everyone talks about how much Anna's changed since she was a girl, having become a corporate workaholic, but Elfman, with her husky voice and chipmunk twinkle, is the quintessential tomboy she seems about as financially driven as one of the Teletubbies.
Watching the film, you wouldn't imagine Norton was as deftly humorous as he appeared in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You. For most of the actors, the comic performances rely on exaggerated double-takes and dropped jaws, not to mention sacrilegious epithets like, "Holy shit" and "Oh. My. God." Stiller is a bit subtler, but as in many of his movies, he seems to be holding himself back, as if unwilling to appear vulnerable.
Faith brings in some old pros as religious father-figures, with Eli Wallach and Ron Rifkin as rabbis and Milos Forman (who directed Norton in The People vs. Larry Flynt) as an avuncular priest. But he doesn't use their characters as a means of exploring religious traditions, instead offering repetitive, post-card shots of New York skylines, parks and sculpture gardens, padding the film to more than two hours.
Like many romantic comedies set in New York, Faith stages confrontation and reconciliation scenes in front of colorful strangers. The film also shows some strange glimmers of misogyny. On a date with Jake, Lisa Edelstein's aerobicizing man-trap gets punched in the stomach and shoved onto the sidewalk for laughs.
Keeping the Faith ultimately seems like the kind of project an actor agrees to in order to get leverage for a more edgy and personal project. Perhaps Norton intended the film to tweak both the sacred and the profane, but There's Something About the Virgin Mary it's not.