WE KNOW THE ONE about the priest who walks into a bar. And the one about the priest and the rabbi. In this romantic comedy,

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Keeping the Faith

A slight offering from first-time director Edward Norton.

WE KNOW THE ONE about the priest who walks into a bar. And the one about the priest and the rabbi. In this romantic comedy, such hackneyed humor is transposed onto a love triangle among three pals since childhood: Brian the priest (Edward Norton), Jake the rabbi (Ben Stiller), and Anna the shiksa tomboy (Jenna Elfman). Anna, now a brilliant corporate shark, returns to Manhattan after a long absence and discovers that her two chums have gotten religion but are still as worshipful of her as ever.

KEEPING THE FAITH

directed by Edward Norton

with Jenna Elfman, Edward Norton, and Ben Stiller

opens April 14 at Meridian, Metro, Northgate

In the first scene, we meet Brian—collar and all—as he stumbles out of one bar and into another. Inside, barkeep and audience get an earful of back story: Brian's calling, his friendship with Jake, their efforts to generate larger congregations (sermons or Seinfeldian stand-up?), their sudden romantic rivalry. Promoting "an Old World God with a New Age spin," they had hoped to open an interfaith community center/senior center/karaoke lounge. Enter Anna, who winks and smiles and dazzles them. What's a priest to do? Or a rabbi whose synagogue is trying to marry him off?

Stiller is the more believable of the two love-struck clerics, and there are welcome flashes of There's Something About Mary in his physical comedy (like fainting at his first bris). Norton plays the straight man awkwardly, and we're never fully convinced of his priestliness. Elfman, Dharma & Greg's Lucille Ball, is all limbs and one-sided cell-phone conversations, and not much more. It's a wasted opportunity, like much of this movie. Norton should have learned better from his turn in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, which managed to transform something familiar into something original and charming. Here, instead, old-fashioned jokes clash with modern sitcom punch lines, yielding few fresh laughs about the conflict between the flesh and the spirit.

 
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