“Have you heard the one about the priest and the rabbi…?” We’ve all heard those jokes. Keeping the Faith (2000) tells the story of a priest and a rabbi and the girl that both of them wanted. It was directed by Edward Norton, who also plays the priest. Ben Stiller plays the rabbi, and Jenna Elfman, the girl. The priest and the rabbi are both hip young clergy who play basketball together regularly, and when they fall for the same girl, romantic comedy ensues.
I am going to level with you up front: I included this film because it was popular and a lot of people saw it and continue to mention it. I think it is a bad film, a destructive film, because it deals in nasty stereotypes and bad information all wrapped up in a feel-good ribbon.
I could forgive Keeping the Faith for being a less-than-perfect romantic comedy: it’s predictable, over-long, and cutesy, but it tackles an interesting subject, interfaith relationships, both friendships and dating. What I find unforgivable in this film makes a long, depressing list, especially since the film often appeals to people who haven’t spent much time lately around either priests or rabbis. To wit:
1. The stereotypes of Jewish women in this film are poisonous. They are portrayed either as greedy, nagging mothers or as greedy, materialistic harpies. One such woman I might find amusing in the right context, but a film that suggests that ALL born Jewish women are like that is a nasty bit of misogynist anti-Semitism.
2. I don’t know any congregational clergy with the free time enjoyed and abused by the priest and the rabbi in this film.
3. Jake (the rabbi) doesn’t see this woman as marriage material, but he has an affair with her, lying about it to everyone including his best friend. Then, in an act of utter narcissism, he decides that his Yom Kippur sermon is the time to come clean about the fact that he’s been doing this. Ethics, anyone?
4. I’ll refrain from criticizing the priest (he’s not my department) but he doesn’t come off much better. Neither clergyman seems to believe in anything with much conviction. They are cardboard cutouts, moving slowly through a really bad priest-and-rabbi joke.
5. As Andrew O’Hehir puts it perfectly in his review in salon.com: “The two religions are treated with a benign stupidity that is supposed to signal respect, as if they were adjacent departments in the spirituality mall that sold slightly different brands of the same product and made no serious demands on their adherents.” It’s a witless, gutless approach to talking about interfaith issues: “There are no important differences.”
If you want to see a movie that goes much deeper into the territory of interfaith relationships, and is funnier to boot, try Annie Hall. Woody Allen’s secular Jew and Diane Keaton’s nice lukewarm Methodist provide a much more interesting meditation on the attraction and the challenges of difference.