I sure wasn’t expecting much. I hate most romantic comedies due to their general implausibility and as I’ve demonstrated in the past, I have a real bug up my a*s about religion. Also, slapstick requires a certain finesse and is often deadly unfunny. Edward Norton, though, has an uncanny track record for selecting material, so I should have known better when I found out he selected this film for his directorial debut.
Three close friends, Brian Finn (Norton), Jake Schram (Ben Stiller), and Anna Reilly (Jenna Elfman), grow up in New York City. Anna moves away with her family during 8th grade, but Brian and Jake remain best friends. Brian grows up to be a Catholic priest while Jake becomes a rabbi. Stellar at their vocations, each attempts to modernize their growing congregations. They may ruffle the feathers of their superiors, but both connect to their audiences and fill up the seats. Both men are still young and attractive, but Father Brian has a vow of chastity while all the mothers throw their single daughters at the available Rabbi Jake.
One day, corporate doctor Anna returns to New York. Each man soon realizes they are in love with her, but she only loves one of them. Complications ensue (and a LOT of slapstick).
Sound offensive, doesn’t it? Even the trailer gives off the scent of a Farrelly brothers flick. That’s definitely not what Norton and writer Stuart Blumberg had in mind. There’s another theme at work here and Norton handles it with a light touch. Most of the writing I’ve seen on this film completely ignores it; but I shouldn’t be surprised as most people are not comfortable discussing religion.
Father Brian and Rabbi Jake are not a couple of dorks. They’re young, popular, good-looking guys who have a mission. Instead of dividing people by their religious affiliations they seek to join and grow their congregations by uniting them in their faith. The director tells us that what’s most important is believing in something bigger than yourself, and how that faith is expressed in your actions and your daily life. Brian Jake are not perfect people, They make mistakes. The important thing for them is to learn to lead people through a complex, changing world, by first finding their own way. Brian does this by learning that his moments of temptation don’t make him bad, just human. Jake had to find out that his faith in his followers is as important as their faith in him.
One of my computer science professors in college used to hammer one lesson into our beer-addled heads: “Rise above the details”. It means you should never get bogged down in the small details of a task. Instead, focus on the over-all goal or purpose.
When you take a hard look at something like Kevin Smith’s structurally and intellectually challenged “Dogma”, the auteur becomes too engrossed in the mythology of Catholicism. The result (other than a very bad movie) was a strange mixture of mockery and unquestioning acceptance and reverence of what he presented.
Becoming an adult is about questioning the world around and finding your own conclusions. People want some reasons for why the world is the way it is. Some take science. Some take religion. Most embrace some mixture of the two, and not everyone is prepared to employ the same amount of thought of the subject. What I think is important is that you at least try. Obviously, Norton has, and has successfully integrated into a romantic comedy. The actor could have gone for the predictable cynicism or gunplay for his first ride in the director’s chair. It demonstrates a lot more balls and growth to express what he may believe in. You just need faith that the audience will understand.