As an actor, Edward Norton is full of surprises. He has a gift for catching you off-guard, mostly because he seems so little like a performer. Who would expect this unassuming, slightly awkward guy with the stuck-in-the-throat voice to be capable of the passionate expression of deeply held beliefs (his big speech at the end of The People vs. Larry Flynt) or the deftly timed self-mockery of his entire split-psyche performance in Fight Club? Norton is a master of mind/body disjunction and other out-of-sync behaviors, the comic emblem of which is the double take.
Late in Keeping the Faith—basically a two-hour-long priest-and-rabbi joke with New Age flourishes, including a gospel choir rendition of the Jewish holiday standard “Ein Kelohainu”—Norton, who plays the priest, discovers something that shatters the fantasy he’s finally worked up the courage to enact. He responds with a series of double takes, one of which involves dumping a pot of water over his own head. Suddenly the film, which has been mushy and predictable, becomes fun to watch. Norton, the actor, rises above his material.
But Norton, the first-time director, does not, having chosen a script so mainstream and superficial it must have gladdened the hearts of Disney execs. Keeping the Faith has been calculated to seem controversial but to offend no one—an ideal conversation piece for the upcoming Passover and Easter family gatherings.
Jake (Ben Stiller) and Brian (Norton) have been best friends since their school days when they were both in love with Anna, a girl with more moxie than the two of them put together. When Anna moves to California, the boys fall back on their other common interest: religion. After graduating from seminary school, they are both assigned to congregations on the Upper West Side. Soon the rabbi and the priest, who sport identical black leather jackets and who have a similar talent for stand-up comedy, are, as Brian puts it, “playing to packed houses” and trying to get their multifaith karaoke club off the ground. Then Anna (Jenna Elfman) returns to put the monkey wrench into their friendship and their respective religious callings. Anna has metamorphosed into a corporate power broker—a chiseled, golden-skinned wonder woman with a cell phone grafted to her ear or, on festive occasions, nestled in her black lace garter.
Jake and Brian are smitten all over again, all the more so because Anna is off-limits to both of them—to Brian because of his vow of celibacy and to Jake because he believes that a rising rabbi must acquire a proper Jewish wife. Nevertheless, Jake and Anna have an affair, which they keep secret from Brian. Keeping the Faith uses the romantic triangle to avoid getting too embroiled in religion and vice versa. When Jake tells his congregation that, rather than weighty subjects like the future of Israel, he’ll use his Yom Kippur sermon to come clean about his affair with Anna, he gives away the film’s game as well as his own. The priest, the rabbi, and the shiksa who came to dinner are so enthralled with themselves that there’s no room in their self-congratulatory world for such potentially divisive issues as women in the clergy, same-sex marriage, or the homeless down the block—modern religion here is a celebration of narcissism. Keeping the Faith‘s hipness is limited to a couple of one-liners. Its exploration of faith and love is skin deep.
The conflicts of assimilation and intermarriage are treated more seriously and more raucously in East Is East, a social satire about a Pakistani shopkeeper in the throes of an identity crisis. George (Om Puri) emigrated to the north of England just before WWII, married an English woman, and had seven children. Now middle-aged, George feels less than a man in the eyes of his white neighbors, who at this moment in the early ’70s are supporting the racist Enoch Powell for Parliament. But he feels even more ashamed in relation to the Pakistani community, which disapproves of his wife and of his children’s liberal ways. In an effort to return his family to the fold, he tries to force three of his sons into arranged marriages. When they refuse, he turns into a tyrant; frustrated by his lack of power, he becomes physically abusive to them and to his wife.
Puri, who was so affecting as a man caught between cultures in My Son the Fanatic, gives an even more explosive and anguished performance here. Without sentimentalizing George, Puri makes us aware of the terrible sense of loss and failure that pushes him over the edge. An ethnically specific character, George is also a kind of displaced patriarchal everyman. More than any character in Keeping the Faith, he reminded me of my first-generation Jewish-American dad.
You don’t have to be Pakistani to empathize with George’s problems. But that doesn’t justify Miramax’s use of a young white actress who’s barely onscreen for 10 minutes as the focus of the East Is East poster. Similarly, George’s misogyny doesn’t justify using women as the butt of the cheapest jokes in the film. Like far too many British comedies about the lower middle class, East Is East frequently slips across the line from satire to ridicule. Making his directorial debut, Damien O’Donnell shows more affinity with Muriel’s Wedding than My Beautiful Laundrette.
With the exception of George and his wife, Ella (Linda Bassett), the film gives us cartoons rather than complicated human beings. East Is East is best when it lets us see the bewilderment beneath George’s rage or the way Ella walks a tightrope to defend her children without undermining her husband’s shaky self-esteem. Bassett has a quiet authority and an appealing sense of humor, but East Is East is largely a showcase for Puri, and he rises to the occasion with a performance that bursts from the screen and tears into your heart.
Paul Newman idles gracefully through Where the Money Is, a caper film hardly worthy of his presence. Newman plays a gentleman bank robber who fakes a stroke to escape from jail. Linda Fiorentino is the nurse who sees through his con and latches onto him as a way of escaping her dead-end life. Although Fiorentino throws sparks at Newman, he’s too wary of falling into the dirty-old-man trap to reciprocate with more than a knowing glance. Only when he gets behind the wheel of a getaway car does he merge the older Paul Newman with the Paul Newman of old.