Keeping the Faith (2000)

keeping the faith

“My Dad just wanted to know if working for God came with dental.”

The Scoop: 2000 PG-13, directed by Edward Norton and starring Ben Stiller, Edward Norton, and Jenna Elfman

Tagline: If you have to believe in something, you might as well believe in love.

Summary Capsule: A priest walks into a bar to tell a story about a rabbi.

Lissa’s rating: Young good-looking clergymen should always wear black leather jackets and sunglasses.

Lissa’s review: Just for the record, Hollywood lies, especially when it makes trailers. I know we’re all aware of this, especially all of us who thought the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Van Helsing trailers looked cool. But I just thought I’d mention that fact again, since it’s relevant. For some reason, Hollywood decided that Keeping the Faith was a knee-slapping comedy, and billed it as such. It’s not. It’s funny, don’t get me wrong, but I wouldn’t really call it a comedy, per se.

I’m not sure what I would call Keeping the Faith, because it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories. It’s not really a romantic comedy. Sure, there’s a romance, but that romance is not the only thing going on — far from it. It’s not a drama; there’s way too many light-hearted moments for that. It’s certainly not action or horror, or biopic or anything else you can really think of. What Keeping the Faith is is a funny yet serious story focused on the meanings of family, friendship, faith, and love.

If you can’t tell, I really like this movie.

Ostensibly (or at least from the trailers), Keeping the Faith seems to focus on religion. The two main characters are Jake Schram (Ben Stiller) and Brian Finn (Edward Norton), a rabbi and a priest who happen to be best friends. Sounds like the set-up for the world’s longest “a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar” joke, right? Well, no, not quite. So we add in Anna (Jenna Elfman), their childhood friend who comes back to visit, now as a stunning blonde career woman. Anna and Jake eventually get involved, with Brian having a crush on her. Again, it seems like a huge setup for madcap hijinks. And again, nope. Not quite. Religion is important in Keeping the Faith, don’t get me wrong. It’s very important. But it’s not important in the way that movies tend to make it important, and for that alone I think this one stands out in the standard Hollywood fare.

No one unearths a conspiracy. No one challenges God. No one really doubts their faith in God or has a true religious crisis. And despite their differences of religion, Jake and Brian don’t debate or even much discuss the theology. In fact (are you ready for this?), they treat each other’s religions with respect. Not tolerance — genuine respect. Neither Catholicism nor Judaism is held up as a superior faith, and the boys don’t try to convert each other. Instead, it’s clear they’ve taken pains to understand each others’ faiths, beliefs, and practices. They listen to each other. They support each other. And when it gets right down to it, that’s the centerpiece of Keeping the Faith: the friendship between Brian and Jake. NOT the friendship between a rabbi and a priest, but the friendship between two men who have a deep religious faith in common and love each other as deeply as brothers.

You’d expect that tossing a gorgeous woman into this mix would derail the film. Doesn’t it usually? Or perhaps you’d think it would bring out the worst in the characters, or lead to implausible scenarios or whatever. But it doesn’t. Part of it is because — unusually — Anna is as fully realized a character as Brian and Jake are. She develops close relationships with both men, but those relationships are clearly different, even ignoring the fact that her relationship with Jake is romantic and her relationship with Brian is platonic (at least from her side). But also, Anna is not Miss Perfect, or the Evil Wench. She doesn’t fall into a cinematic stereotype. And it’s pretty much impossible not to like her, with her no-bull attitude and her dry sense of humor, and the life and vitality that she possesses.

To top it off, Keeping the Faith commits the indignity of not following cinematic rules for romance. The dates the characters go on consist of things like dinner and movies, not jet skiing out to Ellis Island where you’ve got the register open to the name of one of her relatives. And while Jake and Anna do undergo the obligatory break-up partway through the film, the seeds for their problems are sown from the beginning. More than that, they don’t break up over a silly misunderstanding or because one of them lied or there’s some absurd situation that’s fun to watch but impossible to believe. No, they break up because of communication issues and commitment issues and differences in background that they perceive to be important. And again, the seeds for their eventual return to happy couple are planted early, and when they do reunite, it’s believable. And while Brian and Jake handle their competitive attractions to Anna in an amusing manner, again, it’s realistic.

The minor characters are also more three-dimensional than usual, fleshing out the cast beautifully. The elder members of both clergies are neither saints nor power-hungry sinners masquerading as pious old men, but older men with more experience than either Jake or Brian. (And get this — Jake and Brian actually seek their advice. Imagine!) Jake’s mother (played wonderfully by Anne Bancroft) is a rather typical mother, but typical in the way that you can see elements of your own mother in her. She’s pushy and annoying at times, but it’s obvious throughout the movie she genuinely cares for her son. And the karaoke sales guy is just a riot. Seriously.

Keeping the Faith is wonderfully acted, witty, and the emotions aren’t laid on so thick you need a spatula to scrape them off. It’s utterly charming and all three of the main characters are incredibly likeable and endearing. But what ties the whole thing together is the message. Early on, Jake delivers a wonderful line in one of his messages: “When you think about it, God is a lot like Blanche Dubois; He always relies on the kindness of strangers. God relies on us to take care of each other.” And that sums up every relationship in this movie right there. From Brian and Jake and Anna in all the permutations you can think of to all three of their relationships with Jake’s mother to Brian and the bartender to the way Jake and Brian both relate to their congregations, the theme of faith in people as opposed to simply faith in God is explored and reiterated. It’s a fantastic message and one that’s shown so beautifully in this movie that it truly does perk up a bad mood and (ergh) warm the heart. (Thank you, Hallmark, for that last phrase.)

I keep feeling like I could discuss more and more layers of this movie, but then why should you bother to watch it? Just know that there’s more layers there. If you haven’t seen this one, definitely go rent it. I can’t say enough good things about it. Seriously — it’s one of the best movies ever.

Come and knock on my door...
Come and knock on my door…


  • This was Edward Norton’s directorial debut. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m looking forward to more! (Seriously. Has the man ever played a role badly? He’s picked some bad movies ::cough DEATH TO SMOOCHY cough::, but even in them, he’s been phenomenal.)
  • Casanova, the businessman in the office across the street, is played by Jenna Elfman’s husband Bodhi Elfman.
  • While they are driving back from the airport, reminiscing about old school classmates, Brian says, “Remember Aaron Portnoy? He complained a lot.” That’s a reference to Philip Roth’s novel, “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
  • Stuart Blumberg, who wrote the script, plays Len, Jake’s mentor.
  • The “Kiss me, I’m Irish” button on the bartender’s vest?
  • All religious leaders should walk around in black leather and sunglasses with Santana playing in the background.
  • The hiring singers sign at the karaoke machine store? (And Don the karaoke guy?)
  • Edward Norton does an excellent Rainman impression.
  • Hollywood has created Cliff Notes for religious questions.
  • Brian describes thirteen-year-old Anna as “a cross between Jonny Quest and Tatum O’Neal in Foxes”. Tatum O’Neal wasn’t in Foxes. He’s probably referring to Tatum O’Neal in Little Darlings. Then again, he was drunk.
  • Norton plays a priest here; in Primal Fear, he plays a kid who was molested by a priest

Groovy Quotes

Brian: You know, there’s eight million people in New York, but when the three of us were together it felt like we were on our own little island.
Paulie: But New York is an island.

Brian: My Dad just wanted to know if working for God came with dental.

Jake: When you think about it, God is a lot like Blanche Dubois; He always relies on the kindness of strangers. God relies on us to take care of each other.

Brian: Our first big idea was to turn this abandoned gay disco into a joint Catholic-Jewish senior center-slash-karaoke lounge. You know, a sort of Fiddler on the Roof meets Lord of the Dance meets Buena Vista social club.

Jake: Jews want their rabbis to be the kind of Jews they don’t have the time to be.
Brian: Yeah, and Catholics want their priests to be the kind of Catholics they don’t have the discipline to be.

Len: Tradition is not old hat – it’s comforting.

Anna: Trust me, these guys are fascinated by anyone who can survive on under a hundred grand a year.

Brian: You’d better not lie in here – this is the big room. God does not look favorably on – He has a tendency to throw lightning bolts at liars!

Jake: Whoa! Listen to what you’re saying. You’re telling me that I was supposed to be sensitive to the possibility that a Catholic priest might have a crush on my secret girlfriend?

Brian: You’re a Sikh, Catholic Muslim with Jewish in-laws?
Paulie: Yes. Yes. It gets very complicated. I’m reading Dianetics.
Brian: Don’t blame you.

Paulie: I don’t do penance. I do shots.

Paulie: May those who love us, love us. And those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts, and if He can’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we will know them by their limping.

Father Havel: The truth is you can never tell yourself there is only one thing you could be. If you are a priest or if you marry a woman it’s the same challenge. You cannot make a real commitment unless you accept that it’s a choice that you keep making again and again and again.

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One comment

  1. It’s a surprise that somebody as heavy and dramatic like Edward Norton would actually direct something like this, but hey, good for him! Glad he can show his light-side every once and awhile, and do it well. Nice review.

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