Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon, we’re singling out some of our favorite feature directorial debuts by actors.
Keeping The Faith (2000)
Edward Norton has an on-set reputation that could be charitably described as collaborative and less charitably described as intensely meddlesome. So the prospect of Norton helming his own film sounds like an opportunity for him to indulge his strong-willed and uncompromising artistic vision. Norton’s directing debut, Keeping The Faith, may well represent those impulses—but if so, his sensibility is sweeter and lighter than he had previously let on. For his first (and so far only) film, he chose to direct a script (by his buddy Stuart Blumberg) that sounds, as even the characters might admit, like a creaky joke about a rabbi (Ben Stiller) and a priest (Norton) in love with the same woman (Jenna Elfman).
The three actors play childhood friends reunited in their native Manhattan, a turn-of-the-century wonderland hospitable to Santana’s “Smooth” and the casting of the star of Dharma & Greg as a Hollywood romantic lead. Faith is very much a studio project—its 2000 release came courtesy of Disney, back when they still sometimes made their own movies for grown-ups—but it also has a Woody Allen-like affection for the city and its inhabitants, minus Woody’s abiding suspicion of religious activity. Norton’s sunny New York is a multicultural and multi-faith tapestry, where a Catholic priest and Jewish rabbi can be (relatively) hip and enamored with their city’s diversity.
Even with that personal openness, the two suitors’ respective denominations present that rare romantic-comedy construct: believable and interesting obstacles to love, beyond misunderstanding and dating-themed bets. Both fall for Elfman; Stiller, as the rabbi allowed to date but expected to marry a Jew, takes the romantic lead, while Norton casts himself as the lovesick nerd bound by his calling. Actors-turned-directors sometimes give themselves material others won’t; apparently Norton was jonesing to do goofy physical comedy with bittersweet heartbreak.
For the latter, Norton goes adolescent, and his regression has a touch of innocence, like he’s catching up on the romantic rivalries he might have shared with Stiller had they taken less devout paths. Apart from the characters’ religious dilemmas, Keeping The Faith also deftly portrays the sometimes-blurry line between friendship and romance. Norton keeps his focus on these relationships; his direction doesn’t show much technical flash, beyond some quick freeze-frames when Stiller and Norton both seem to be taking mental pictures of Elfman. But in its accessible way, this warm and funny movie is as big a surprise as any in Norton’s filmography.