Published April 1, 2000
Early on in Keeping the Faith, Father Brian Finn (Edward Norton) advises his worshiping flock, most of whom appear to be worshiping him, that “faith is different from religion,” and he makes it clear which of the two he prefers. Religion is old, stuffy, rule-bound, while faith is personal—“a feeling, a hunch,” he says. I’m not sure that Cardinal Ratzinger would entirely agree with him about this, but then I don’t suppose he’d give a Ratzinger’s ass if the Cardinal didn’t. Father Finn’s best pal from childhood, now a rabbi named Jake Schram (Ben Stiller), is a similarly happening guy, announcing to his congregation that “Yom Kippur is kind of like the Superbowl of the Jewish calendar” and apologizing because “lately I haven’t been sharing my life with you.”
Father Finn and Rabbi Schram are united not only by their childhood friendship and their mutual crush on the gorgeous Anna Reilly (Jenna Elfman) whom they have not seen since she moved to California at 13, but also by the desire to “kick the dust off our faiths.”Of course the dust has been so far kicked off of both faiths that for years progressive minded simpletons like Finn and Schram have been kicking the faiths themselves, though I don’t suppose we should expect Mr Norton, who also directed, to know that. In his mind it is still the early 1960s, and we are expected to believe that both Catholic and Jewish congregations are stunned by the casual, hip style of their young shepherds, the bongo drums and guitars and the kind of ecumenical fervor that would import the entire Gospel Choir of Harlem to sing in the synagogue in order to reinvigorate the faith of the old and unenthusiastic.
In real life the dwindling flocks, at least of the Christian denominations, have been used to little else for 30 years. Neither the film’s one or two good jokes nor even the presence of the gorgeous Miss Elfman can save it from this conceptual disaster. Interestingly, Norton and his screenwriter, Stuart Blumberg, expect to sell us on the attractiveness of Anna not just with her obvious charms but also by the fact that she is a high-powered businesswoman from the coast, a Mistress of the Universe apparently, whose brilliant success in the once-masculine world of deal-making is taken for granted. “I work harder than God,” she tells the admiring Jake, who is himself more the gentle and nurturing type: “if he’d had me working for him, he’d have finished the world by Thursday.” God Himself, as well as his masculine acolytes, is meant to be in awe of this gal.
As, naturally, are we. Yet you would have to share the film’s blind, unquestioning faith (a hunch, a feeling, no doubt) in social and moral “progress” not to feel that she, too, is just the tiniest bit overstated. The feminist point is as much strained at as the self-conscious hipness and accessibility of the clergymen. In its old-fashioned, preachy fashion, the film insists that relations between the sexes, just like those creaky, old-fashioned religious orthodoxies, must be reinvigorated by an overturning of all the old assumptions. What a revolutionary idea! It doesn’t realize that the old old assumptions were overturned years ago. Now it’s the new assumptions that are the old assumptions—and more than ready to be turned over again, you’d have to say after seeing this movie.