Like some pilot for a new ABC series titled Two Guys, a Girl and a Synagogue, Keeping the Faith is a banal sitcom masquerading as religious deepthink dolled up as boy-meets-goy love story. The movie -- about a rabbi (Ben Stiller), a priest (Edward Norton, also the film's director) and Anna, the girl who loves them unequally (Jenna Elfman) -- strives for depth but keeps hitting its head on the shallow end. Not only are you 20 steps ahead of the plot before the opening credits end, you're 20 steps out the door. And Stiller and Elfman are not Streisand and Redford, whose charisma carried The Way We Were to the finish line against its will. Yes, we want to see Stiller and Elfman end up together, but only so we can wrap this sucker up and make our escape: Who needs this prefab, sanitized sermon on faith, love, and the inexplicable appeal of Ben Stiller to attractive women (or, as they say, charity)?
If you don't see where Keeping the Faith is headed (namely, conversion classes), you might be a fetus. It's inevitable that both Rabbi Jake Schram and Father Brian Kilkenny Finn would fall in love with their childhood pal Anna Reilly, who is reunited with the two men after nearly two decades. She is, as Brian recalls, the perfect girl -- "a cross between Johnny Quest and Tatum O'Neal in Foxes." (Every other woman in the film is just dense, humorless or both.) But Brian can't have Anna (vows of celibacy being what they are), and Jake can -- which is fortunate, because workaholic Anna wants him. Only problem is, loving a shiksa could ruin Jake's shot at being head rabbi and screw up his relationship with his mother (Anne Bancroft), who has already disowned one son for marrying a non-Jew. Think The Thorn Birds Crossing Delancey, then stop thinking when Anna says, "Sometimes you don't see things in a certain way till you're ready." They don't give Oscars for Best Fortune Cookie, do they?
But every now and then, almost by accident, Keeping the Faith offers up a random aphorism that actually means something. As Jake, the hipster rabbi who wears his yarmulke like a leather jacket and seemingly begins every sentence with an exasperated Jesus, Stiller is desperate to find a way to reconnect his congregation to their religion. He has watched attendance dwindle to nothing; he hears how those who do show up for services mumble their way through prayers. It's a prescient point: Jews have forgotten how to be Jewish, and our spiritual leaders have no idea how to reconcile tradition with today. Jake, who believes in presenting "an old-world God with a New Age spin," battles the synagogue's elders, who abhor change. "People come here for a sense of continuity," says the head rabbi (Eli Wallach). "Tradition is not a sense of old habit -- it's comforting."
But the film is not too concerned with spirituality or tradition. Mostly it hides behind such things as it winks its way through the "religious" bits (a bar mitzvah, confession, Kol Nidre services, a bris). Jake is part rock star, part Phil Donahue; he turns the pulpit into a stage, sprinkling his sermons with pop-culture references and wanders through the congregation bearing a microphone for a little Q&A. And without warning, the movie becomes Sister Act in a tallith: One Saturday morning, Jake brings in a Harlem gospel choir to perform, hoping to shock the systems of those moribund Hebrews who have forgotten how to rejoice. The scene, like many others, falls flat; what's played for laughs elicits groans.
Norton's Father Brian is more temperate than his best friend, who seems to confuse profound with glib. Brian is a Spanish-speaker who packs the house by playing to the cheap seats, and Norton is almost believable as a priest; his is, after all, the face of a choirboy (used for sick grins in Primal Fear). No matter how silly he acts or how many cutesy falls he takes, Brian offers up a serene solemnity. Even when he considers giving up his vows of celibacy for Anna, Norton wears Brian's inner conflict like an old T-shirt. You almost feel for him as he breaks down, offering his own embarrassing confession to the woman who doesn't return his affection. Unfortunately, Norton and screenwriter Stuart Blumberg ruin this scene, undercutting the tension with limp jokes. "I feel like I'm in some Aaron Spelling show," Brian mutters through tears. "Melrose Priest." He is too often reduced to set dressing, the third wheel cut loose for long stretches of time. We see Jake delivering sermon after sermon, teaching bar mitzvah classes and generally Jewing out in scene after scene, while Brian has nothing to do but confess his love for Anna to Father Havel (Milos Forman, slumming it). The whole movie belongs to Stiller, who offers up yet another irritating variation on the sole character he seems capable of playing: himself.
Perhaps Norton simply had difficulty balancing his roles as actor and director; certainly he stumbles over the latter. He shows no sense of comedic timing: Scenes don't end; they just stop, stranding stale punch lines in the ether. Even when the film stumbles across a nifty bit, Norton wrings the life out it until the comedy falls limp on the concrete: the jokes should be cordoned off with police tape. When, early on, Jake tries to convince Brian and Anna to join him on a double date, Brian breaks out in a dead-on impression of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, repeating phrases in a deadpan drone. It's a brief but effective gag, a respite in a comedy that takes itself too seriously, but Norton repeats the shtick over and over until he finally becomes an annoyance. Stiller than taps in the final nail by actually referring to Brian as Rain Man, in case the audience is too stupid (or, perhaps, too sleepy) to catch on to the reference. You might feel condescended to, if that knot of pity weren't in the way.
And Norton plays every scene too broadly, too loudly; you expect everyone to break into song at the end of every scene -- which they actually do a couple of times. (Indeed, the film ends with a scene set in an interfaith karaoke coffee bar for seniors, where Barry Manilow's "Ready to Take a Chance Again," the love theme from Foul Play, coos over the loud speakers. Really, I'm not making this up.) In the end, the film's point is so clear you can see right through it: Hey, guess what: It's possible for Jews and Catholics to get along! They can even love each other, in the most biblical sense! Jesus wept.
Opens April 14.