Do you have movies (or books or songs or whatnot) which, for whatever weird reason, you’ve seen a numerous times? Not out of a belief that they are superlative, though they might be, not because you’ve sought them out for repeated viewings, but through happenstance?
During my first year of college, I watched the 2000 romantic comedy Keeping the Faith — directed by and starring Edward Norton and featuring Ben Stiller and Jenna Elfman — about twenty-five times. It’s one of those cultural artifacts that immediately evokes a time and place for me. It ceased to be a film; it was instead a wormhole.
Recently, I caught a few minutes of it on television and in a new context, it was defamiliarized. I realized that Keeping the Faith was actually a very charming and successful rom-com, and thus it’s this week’s selection.
Norton and Stiller are childhood best friends who, stop me if you’ve heard this one, grow up to become a priest and a rabbi. They’re leading their congregations and dealing with structural conservatism against the changes they want to implement. In Stiller’s case, he’s also weathering pressure to get married. Enter Elfman — the third member of their trio — who’s grown up, become a high-powered business woman, and turned beautiful. A love triangle ensues.
What makes the film better than the average rom-com of the period is, first, it’s warmth and gentleness and, second, the extent to which it represents its characters inner lives. Elfman’s non-Jewishness is a big deal for Stiller; Norton undergoes a crisis of faith based on his attraction: this is not the stuff of the average Hollywood movie. While I wouldn’t say it’s serious by any stretch of the imagination, the characters are far more three-dimensional than is generally the case.
Now some of the humor comes from cultural and religious stereotypes, which occasionally grate, but any time the film is dealing with the genuine friendship and affection between the trio, it’s on solid ground. While I knew that Norton could be a great actor, the film also proved to me that Stiller and Elfman can give good performances with the right material. I am particularly annoyed on Elfman’s behalf that she never managed much of anything post-Dharma & Greg. (Oh, 90s pop culture.)
For me, it’s New York-style pizza and Keeping the Faith tonight.