Keeping the Faith

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So there’s this priest and this rabbi, and they’re both in love with the same girl. And then one of them winds up with her.

OK, so it’s not a great joke. “Keeping the Faith” is not a great movie, either, though it is very good in certain respects. It actually has something serious to say about faith and religion, for one thing — subjects that are not treated with much dignity in movies these days, if they’re treated at all.

It’s also a genuine pleasure to watch Ben Stiller in just about anything, and he and Edward Norton have a surprisingly good comic chemistry between them, Stiller with his witty, pop-culturey persona and Norton as an everyday schlub but with a cute smile. The always-gorgeous Jenna Elfman also delivers the goods, playing well with both of her onscren pals.

Stiller, Norton and Elfman play Jake, Brian and Anna, childhood friends who were split up when Anna’s family moved after eighth grade. Jake and Brian remained best friends, though, and went on to fulfill their callings in life: Jake became a rabbi, Brian became a priest.

They’re both modern in their approaches to their congregations, seeking to “shake the dust” off their respective religions. In fact, they plan to open an inter-faith Karaoke lounge together (one of several amusingly odd sidebars in this film).

Things get tumultuous when Anna, now a high-powered corporate gal, comes back to town for a while. Jake could never marry her because she’s not Jewish, and Brian could never marry her because he’s sworn a vow of celibacy. Nonetheless, she and Jake begin a relationship together, hiding it from everyone — including Brian.

When the film tries for comedy, it succeeds gloriously. Jake refers to the Jewish moms who are always trying to foist their daughters on him as “the kosher nostra.” Brian, upon learning of Jake and Anna’s relationship, says, “I feel like I’m in a bad new Aaron Spelling show — ‘Melrose Priest.'” Jake collects “Heroes of the Torah” trading cards. It’s a funny film, when it wants to be.

Trouble is, it doesn’t want to be very often. It spends more time being serious with the love triangle, which leads to crises of faith for both clergymen. This is admittedly a fresh, new angle on the whole “romantic comedy” thing, and while it’s a welcome change, it goes on for too long: This movie is more than 2 hours, and it feels like every second of it.

This is Norton’s directorial debut, and while his eye is generally keen, he stumbles often in letting scenes go on too long, and including some scenes that don’t even need to be there.

The conflicts — Jake can’t marry a non-Jew or his congregation will freak out; Brian is hurt that Jake lied to him; Brian’s in love with Anna, too — all get resolved a little too easily, almost without effort.

And yet, it’s an enjoyable film. The stars are eminently likable, rising above dialogue that would bog many others down. It’s not quite romantic enough to be a great romance, nor is it funny enough to be a good comedy. It’s somewhere in between, with a refreshing dose of real-live religion thrown in to make the whole thing a little better than it would have been otherwise.

B- (; PG-13, mild profanity, non-naked sexual situations.)

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