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So this priest walks into a bar and pulls out a picture of a priest, a rabbi, and a businesswoman....

Thus begins Edward Norton’s career as a comedy director.

Best Friends

Norton directs himself and Ben Stiller as a priest and a rabbi, respectively. The two have been best friends since childhood. Both now live and work in New York. Both mix a portion of humanistic fun into their reverence for tradition, and both have packed their congregations with young, energetic crowds.

But the movie isn’t about their professional lives; it’s about their friendship. While out shooting hoops one day, Brian (Norton) tells Jake (Stiller) that their old friend Anna called. She was their best friend in eighth grade, and both boys had a crush on her. Now she is coming to town and she wants to see them.

Both men still carry a torch for Anna, but neither has much of a chance with her. Brian has taken a vow of celibacy and he plans to stick to it. Jake, on the other hand, feels pressure from his congregation to settle down with a nice Jewish girl (which Anna is not).

Flirtations

When Anna comes to town, she impresses and confounds the two with her feminine charm. She flirts with both of them, and they flirt back. But there is also camaraderie among the three; a friendship and familiarity that transcends mere flirtation.

The rest of the film works through the holy geometry of this friendship-and-love triangle.

There is much room for criticism in Keeping the Faith. For one thing, the character of Anna is a plot device, although Elfman’s easy friendship with the two leads helps flesh out her character. For another, the movie is also too long, clocking in at about two hours (most comedies are much shorter) The length becomes a problem toward the end, when the plot starts rambling; it’s as though Norton the director didn’t have the heart to cut Norton the performer’s screen time.

Yet there is much to like as well. Keeping the Faith has some very good lightweight dialogue. It has three appealing actors who share some good on-screen energy. Also, it was nice to see a movie that includes matters of faith and tradition — not because they’re handled in any new or revealing way, but because they’re acknowledged and factored in to everyday life.

The problems with Norton’s rookie filmmaking are visible and not insignificant. But in contrast to the affable energy of Stiller, Norton, and Elfman, the problems are easily forgotten.