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'KEEPING THE FAITH'

Holy mother of threesomes!

by Kaori Shoji

Actor Edward Norton has only been in the business four years, but he makes you think that he’s been there forever.

If a movie career is a game of chess, Norton is a class player who rounds up every game quickly and neatly, as if winning is simply a habit. He has consistently starred in films that count (“Fight Club,” “American History X”), worked with only the best directors (Woody Allen, Milos Foreman), and is always seen courting the right babes (Drew Barrymore, Salma Hayek). Unlike other stars, Norton doesn’t have a past that could wound or embarrass him, no B-horror films that one picks up at some suburban rental shop to say: “Hey! Says here Edward Norton. Not the Edward Norton?”

This time, the Edward Norton has produced/directed/starred in his own movie. From a man oozing with capability and high academic marks, one expects something not easy to describe or recount. Something cynical, cerebral, complicated and some other adjectives I could tell you if I had a thesaurus handy.

“Keeping the Faith” (released in Japan as “Bokutachi no Anna Banana”) is a surprise for those who love or hate Norton for his never-miss-a-step slickness. First off, it’s what the Japanese call a romakome (romantic comedy), you know, those films in which all the characters laugh a lot, cry a little and parade across the screen in cool/casual togs before winding up in a passionate embrace. It’s also a bit o-baka (endearingly dumb) in which you will see a goofier, dorkier Norton crack a series of dumb jokes with costar Ben Stiller (“har-har-har!”). I’m not saying this is on the same level as “There’s Something About Mary,” but Norton definitely comes down to earth for this project.

You can see he’s not used to it, and the performance is a little artificial in places. The presence of Stiller (self-deprecator extraordinaire) smooths over the bumps and the overall effect is what he must have aimed at: as light and cute and charming as a Shirley Temple cocktail.

Written by Stuart Blumberg (Norton’s college roommate), “Keeping the Faith” models itself on the ambience of prewar Hollywood love stories where the whole plot pivots around who gets the girl, and borrows much from the humor and menage a trois love situation of “The Philadelphia Story.”

You may want to argue whether Norton and Stiller recall Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. But to the movie’s credit, it shows us the closest modern approximation to Katherine Hepburn: A sporty, crisp, streamlined actress named Jenna Elfman.

Elfman had worked mainly on television (“Dharma and Greg”), but her charms seem tailored for the big screen. Her features are so clean they seem to have been first chiseled, then scrubbed 500 times at a Provencal soap shop. And though her physique recalls Hepburn, her speech is Barbara Stanwyck: intellectual, yet saucy. Thanks to her, “Keeping the Faith” is plenty sexy but never steps over the thin line into the terrain of Sentimental Mush.

Elfman plays Anna, a go-getting L.A. exec whose business takes her to Manhattan, scene of her childhood. She contacts elementary school buddies Jake (Stiller) who grew up to be a rabbi, and Brian (Norton) who matured into a Catholic priest. The trio take up as if they’ve never been apart and soon, both Jake and Brian realize that they are passionately in love with the dazzling Anna, and have been since 6th grade.

Jake has an advantage: Being a rabbi, he’s free to marry — but his wife must be Jewish (Anna is not) and accepted by his overprotective/superconservative mama (Ann Bancroft). Brian’s love options are closed, unless he’s ready to abandon his calling and parish.

As for Anna, she loves them both but she’s so busy juggling career obligations she hardly has time off the cell phone, let alone think quietly over religion/marriage as a package deal. Which of the two should win Anna? You start hoping they’d all ditch faith and settle for free-love, communal living.

If you like the movie, it probably won’t be as much for the story as the little details in the dialogue, like calling Anna by her 6th-grade nickname, “Anna Banana” and Anna responding in cryptic office-memo type sentences: “OK. Thursday, dinner, 8.” Indeed, if I were a guy and dating a 27-year-old securities analyst plagued by TSE listings, this is what I would take her to see (“You need to get out and relax, baby”).

A good date movie is hard to find but “Keeping the Faith” is pretty much in keeping with the requirements. And as a date movie should, it kindly highlights all the Manhattan hot spots for happy couples — Carmine’s where the trio celebrate their reunion, the snobbish Delphini where you go for real kebabs, the Irish pub Peter McManus for when you want to wind down. Wish I was there.