Last night my mom and I watched Keeping The Faith, a movie I have absolutely seen multiple times. (Possibly more than 20? It used to be on cable a lot, and it was, believe it or not a sleepover staple for my friends and me. We were weird youth group comedy nerds, it hit many of our sweet spots!)
If you’re unfamiliar with the film, it’s worth a watch. In it, a priest, played by Edward Norton and a rabbi, played by Ben Stiller, both fall in love with their childhood friend, played by Jenna Elfman.
The movie is a little all over the place, sometimes being a standard rom com. After all, Elfman’s character, Anna, is a high powered executive, who learns to let go a little bit, because of her relationship with Jake. (Stiller). And the love triangle plot could be totally played out.
But the faith aspect sets Keeping The Faith apart. Jake and Anna’s relationship isn’t complicated by her work, and her desire to further her career. She doesn’t see a problem with scaling back on her work to make a relationship work. She’s achieved wonderful things and will continue to, but she’s ready to explore a new path.
The complication comes because Anna isn’t Jewish, and as a rabbi, Jake can’t really commit to a gentile woman, lest he alienate his family and his congregation.
Also, Brian (Norton), who as a Catholic priest, can’t pursue his feelings for his friend ads another layer of interest to this otherwise trite story.
So we get two men, at a loss for where to go with regards to this woman. Which is a really big switch when it comes to romantic comedy.
And why more romantic comedies need female leads like Anna. Anna is not conflicted. She knows what she wants, and she’s willing to make sacrifices, though not change who she is, in order to pursue it. When Brian confesses his feelings to her, she rebuffs him immediately and lets him know that, aside from the fact she isn’t interested in him, she could never ask him to give up his vocation for her.
I’ve just forgotten what a lovely little movie it was, and while the faith themes always resonated with me, as did the vocational questions, it wasn’t until this viewing that I realized how interesting, nuanced, and different a character Anna is.
And this is in no small way due to Jenna Elfman’s performance, which is delightful. In the hands of a lesser comedic actress Anna could have become a cliche, or been cloying, but instead she’s charming and warm and kind of a delight. Romantic comedies have died a slow and agonizing death over the past ten years. And, although indie cinema seems to have picked up the slack, but I could do without all of the irony involved in those movies.
If more romantic comedy heroines felt like Anna Riley, I don’t think things would have gone down in flames so hard and fast. She’s a person, with feelings and layers and it’s something that should be celebrated.
Keeping The Faith is worth revisiting, although there are elements that instantly date it. The soundtrack is heavily 99-00 in feel, and the constant bafflement by Anna’s use of her cell phone is another oddity, but it also has a finale where Edward Norton sings a karaoke rendition of “Ready To Take A Chance Again.”
So worth your time. Because of religion. And feminism! And romantic comedy! (I so very rarely get to have those three things all together!)