Keeping The Faith

In a set-up it at least acknowledges sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, Keeping The Faith stars Ed Norton and Ben Stiller as a priest and a rabbi, respectively, whose lifelong friendship and plans to open an interfaith senior-citizen/karaoke center are placed in jeopardy. Stiller and Norton share an unconventional approach to religious instruction, delivering sermons that sound like substandard stand-up routines. But both are highly assured and respected in their chosen fields, a fact symbolized by a scene in which, clad in black sunglasses and leather jackets, they walk the streets in slow motion to the accompaniment of Santana's "Smooth." Their functional ecumenism is strained, however, upon the return of childhood friend Jenna Elfman, a successful businesswoman who, unlike most of her cinematic breed, actually possesses a soul. Or so, from the way Stiller and Norton adoringly speak of her, it would seem. There's so little substance to Keeping The Faith's characters that they all threaten to recede into the background of the picturesque New York locations, a maddening flaw considering the talent involved. Stiller can breathe life into even his worst movies, but not this one, while the normally reliable Norton has little with which to work—and, since Keeping The Faith marks his directorial debut, he really has no one to blame but himself. Norton's work behind the camera is worse than pedestrian; it's flatfooted, though fellow first-timer Stuart Blumberg's script doesn't help. It's doubtful that anyone could have spun gold out of 30 minutes of shrill physical comedy followed by 90 minutes of charmless, sentimental yammering. Norton the director's debut is the sort of film Norton the actor wouldn't touch. It's a shame they don't have more in common.

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