This film review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on June 9, 2000
Directed by Edward Norton
Written by Stuart Blumberg (co-writer with Lisa Cholodenko of the new film The Kids Are All Right)
Starring Ben Stiller, Edward Norton, Jenna Elfman, Anne Bancroft, Eli Wallach, Ron Rifkin and Milos Forman
Mainstream American films about rabbis are certainly not very common. There’s The Chosen (probably the best of the genre), Close to Eden, The Jazz Singer (with Melanie Griffiths) and maybe a handful of others. Back in 1927, Al Jolson starred in , a film based on a play based on a short story which in turn was based on his own life. In it, he breaks his family tradition – being seven generations of cantors – to choose the secular life of the “jazz singer”. This film has been made many times since, and is so popular in part because of its age-old conundrum: the conflict of modernism and tradition.
Keeping the Faith falls squarely in this mold, neatly updating the issues to present-day New York City’s Upper West Side. It’s an interesting, although possibly far-fetched story: When they were 12 year-olds in year 6 at “PS 84” in Manhattan, young Jake Schram (Ben Stiller), Brian Finn (Edward Norton, who also directed the film) and Anna Reilly (a very blond and WASPy Jenna Elfman) became best friends. The happy three-some broke up in year 8 when Anna’s family moved to California. Fast forward 18 years: they are all in their early 30’s. Jake has become a hip leather jacket-wearing rabbi (for what appears to be either a Reform or very progressive Conservative congregation), Brian is now a Catholic priest, and Anna is a highly successful California-based business woman, whose strongest relationship is with her mobile phone.
Brian and Jake are still best friends (undertaking projects together like “interfaith drop-in centres” for the elderly), and all of them are (of course) single. For Brian it goes with the job, but for Jake it is a problem because a bachelor has never been senior rabbi of “B’nai Ezra” (based loosely on and shot mostly at B’nai Jeshurun on West 88th Street), and senior Rabbi Lewis (nicely played by Eli Wallach) is about to retire. Enter Anna again, posted to New York for a couple of months and looking up her old friends. Imagine the possibilities: the priest tempted to give up his calling, and the rabbi tempted to go out with a non-Jewish woman. Old friendships are sorely tried in the process.
Here is where Keeping the Faith enters some interesting territory – likely to be lively topic of discussion around some dinner tables – because Rabbi Jake and Anna get secretly involved. How the film (with a script by first-timer Stuart Blumberg) resolves all of the complications that entail is interesting to behold. The three leads are all nicely cast and very watchable (here Norton plays mild and “nice” compared to his Fight Club and American History X roles), and their supporting cast is also superb: Anne Bancroft as Jake’s mother Ruth (who has disowned her older son Ethan because he married a Catholic woman), Ron Rifkin as President of the Temple Board Larry Friedman, and noted Czech film director Milos Forman (who is also Jewish) in the role of Brian’s mentor Father Havel.
The portrayal of Jews and Judaism is surprisingly nuanced for an American film, possibly partly due to a “Rabbi Hillel Norry” as an advisor. There are sly references such as one to rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary, some very knowing insights into the dynamics of Jewish communal life, and a remarkably well-developed probing into the issue of continuity versus change in Jewish ritual (Rabbi Schram is very “alternative”). There are also some hilarious moments, such as when a black gospel choir does its version of “Ain Kelohainu”. By contrast, Jewish women do not come off all that well: Jake’s two Jewish “dates” consist of an oversexed workout freak (played by Lisa Edelstein) and a workaholic Middle East journalist (Rena Sofer), neither character much more than one-dimensional.
Keeping the Faith pays much more attention to “faith” than you would expect, is quite entertaining and goes far deeper into “interfaith” issues than the likes of The Nanny or other contemporary fare. Some viewers may be concerned by the Jake-Anna relationship, but at least there is a sensitivity and thoughtful approach to Judaism that few other maintstream films attain.