Keeping the Faith

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Keeping The Faith

5/10

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director – Edward Norton
script – Stuart Blumberg
cinematographer – Anastas Michos
stars – Edward Norton, Ben Stiller, Jenna Elfman
129 minutes

Keeping The Faith hits the ground running, but runs out of energy a long way before the 129-minute finishing line. The first half hour is a bracing surprise full of inventive gags, both visual and verbal, and it suggests Edward Norton may yet have the makings of a director, although he’s a long way from the finished article at the moment.

Norton is the latest in a string of respected US actors who have stepped behind the camera in recent years – and I can think of only Kevin Spacey’s Albino Alligator as an instance where the actor has resisted the urge to act in the movie as well. I’d slot Keeping The Faith just below Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 and Spacey’s film, and just above Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge, and the Campbell Scott/Stanley Tucci collaboration Big Night but of all the actor/directors named in this paragraph I’d predict that only Gallo has any chance of being as interesting and strong as a film-maker as he is as a performer.

Buffalo 66 has plenty of flaws, but you certainly couldn’t accuse Gallo of holding anything back – if anything, he’s too keen to stamp his identity on every frame of his work. With Norton, on the other hand, there’s a distinct feeling that he’s reining himself in, taking every step very carefully, being faithful to his characters and to Stuart Blumberg’s script. But that’s where the problem lies, in the script. Norton and Stiller play a Catholic priest and a Rabbi, best friends since childhood and now rising stars blowing a gust of fresh air through the stuffy traditions of their faiths. Elfman’s WASP character was part of the lads’ gang way back in the old days before her family moved away – and her return to Manhattan complicates the boys’ lives no end, as both realise they are in love with her, Norton in contradiction of his vows, Stiller in opposition to his congregations’s preference for a Jewish girlfriend.

Among William Goldman’s many screenwriting maxims, I’ve always preferred “screenplays are structure” to the more-famous “nobody knows anything,” and a contrast between Faith and another current US release dealing with the two-guys-and-a-girl triangle, Play It To The Bone illustrates what Goldman was getting at. Faith is full of snappy, often brilliant one-liners, while the dialogue in Bone is comparatively clunky. But the latter film has a cohesive structure which allows the development of convincing characters, while Norton’s movie never seems to know where it’s headed, and the result feels cobbled together and increasingly conventional.

Another obvious unfavourable comparison is with Woody Allen. As in many Allen films, Faith explores the romantic and religious neuroses of educated, self-analytical contemporary New Yorkers. There are the usual Manhattan picturesque shots of Central Park, etc, though cinematographer Michos falls a long way short of Allen’s brilliant collaborators such as Sven Nykvist, and Blumberg’s work feels formulaic and contrived when placed alongside the mature complexity of Allen’s best work. Then again, Keeping The Faith is a cut above Allen’s own debut, Take The Money And Run from 1969, a film which grows less appealing with every passing year. Norton’s picture is a satisfactory piece of work, no more and no less. It’s been sufficiently well received for him to take a few more chances next time around – let’s hope he does, for his sake, and ours.

by Neil Young
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