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Jewish World Review April 18, 2000 /13 Nissan, 5760

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
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Film Makes Keeping the Faith Irrelevant --
FOR A MEMBER of the contemporary clergy, what represents the ultimate in righteousness?

Hollywood answers that question with its own version of the First Commandment: Thou shalt be a nice (and nice-looking) guy and never, ever attempt to judge yourself or others. As for traditional notions of morality - particularly those pesky prejudices about sexual morality - well, all truly spiritual people ought to 'grow' beyond all that, shouldn't they?

This is the underlying theme of Keeping the Faith, a slick new comedy with serious religious overtones that is simultaneously charming and troubling. The hugely talented Edward Norton directed the film while playing a compassionate, idealistic Catholic priest whose childhood best friend (Ben Stiller) is now a hip young assistant rabbi for a prominent congregation on New York's upper west side. The two pals play basketball together, attend one another's services and generally model ecumenical brotherhood, until they suddenly reconnect with another childhood buddy, Jenna Elfman, who unexpectedly has developed from a spunky tomboy into a glamorous, hard-charging corporate hotshot.

Naturally, both clergymen fall wildly in love with her, although in each case pursuing that love would seem to be out of the question. The priest, of course, is blocked by his vows of celibacy, while the rabbi faces a formidable obstacle in his dream girl's Irish-Catholic identity.

Despite the cutesy, contrived nature of this basic setup, the cast gives these characters warmhearted life and lends the film an enchanted sheen - until the rabbi gives in to temptation one night and falls into bed with the leading lady. Promising one another that commitment never will be allowed to interfere with their fun, they commence a torrid affair, determined to keep their nightly sex a complete secret from their mutual friend, the priest.

Could a real-life rabbi prove capable of such behavior? Of course he could --- but he'd never be able to pursue his furtive affair without serious pangs of guilt. The movie loses all credibility when it shows its purportedly devout hero worried that his congregants might find out he's dating a non-Jewish girl, but utterly unconcerned that G-d might notice he's making love every night to a woman he has no intention of marrying.

This character, by the way, is not supposed to be some sort of secular humanist. We watch him dutifully putting on his phylacteries for morning prayer, and he passionately collects 'rabbi cards' with photos of bearded Hassidic masters.

Even when it comes to a melodramatic scene on Yom Kippur, the sacred Day of Atonement, in which the rabbi reveals his affair to the congregation, the spiritual leader remains mysteriously guilt free.
The rabbi and the priest
He pointedly declares that he doesn't regret the relationship and apologizes only for not candidly disclosing its nature to the members of his temple.

Similarly, the only rebuke he receives from his priestly pal involves his failure to reveal the romantic connection. No one ever touches on the overriding issue of premarital sex.

Perhaps this picture is properly attuned to our Oprah-ized era of tabloid talk shows, in which even the most outrageous behavior seems sanctioned as long as it is candidly confessed. But the characters in Keeping the Faith are not cross-dressing or incestuous trailer trash: They're supposed to be dedicated holy men who live to convey spiritual enlightenment to their congregants.

The disconnection of that spirituality from all questions of sexual ethics betrays the very essence of Jewish and Catholic traditions --- both of which insist that true closeness to G-d requires self-control in the most intimate arena. The trivialization of religiosity reaches a kind of apogee with the joint project that obsesses both clerics through the entire course of the film: They are solemnly determined to overcome all obstacles for the noble purpose of opening an interfaith karaoke den where their two congregations can meet and mingle.

On one level, Keeping the Faith, with its sympathetic characterizations, represents a welcome departure from Hollywood's recent tendency to render ministers, priests and rabbis as crazy or corrupt in movies ranging from Priest to A Price Above Rubies to Stigmata to Primal Fear - also with Edward Norton. Yet the insistence on a guilt-free, full-blown sexual affair - rather than an unconsummated romance, which would have worked at least as well for the plot - makes it clear that the faith these heroes work to keep has nothing to say about the most private, profound aspect of our lives.

In this movie's viewpoint, religion provides unfocused warm feelings, tacky social events, karaoke entertainment and gossipy congregants, but no guidelines at all when it comes to sex.

It's a crowd-pleasing but empty formula for keeping the faith quaint --- and irrelevant.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.


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03/21/00: Oscars: Will Hollywood do its duty or follow its heart?
03/03/00: Family friendly video versions would provide choice, not censorship
02/18/00: Hollywood votes for liberalism (SURPRISE!) in the Oscar nomination primary
01/26/00: Who is more "Twisted," Rocker or his heavy metal critics?
12/23/99: Media century began with unity but ends with isolation
12/15/99:The "battle in Seattle" as a '60's flashback --- only on the surface
12/01/99: Delusion and denial
11/16/99: Good reason for chaotic state of American values
11/03/99: Religion is unfairly blamed for the world's wars
10/06/99: Hollywood again makes drug use seem hip
08/25/99: NAACP attacks the wrong TV target
08/16/99: Government declares we're in a post-marriage age?

© 2000, Michael Medved