Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Keeping Promises

By Donna Bowman

APRIL 24, 2000:  Edward Norton made a huge splash in the movie world with his 1996 debut Primal Fear. Since then, he's been doing prestige work, from singing and dancing for Woody Allen in Everybody Says I Love You to portraying dark corners of the psyche in American History X and Fight Club. So why did he choose for his directorial debut a romantic comedy with a broad slapstick frame? Probably as a favor to his friend, screenwriter Stuart Blumberg. But given Norton's huge reputation as an acting talent, Keeping the Faith inevitably becomes a test of his ability to elevate light comedic material from behind the camera, as well as in front of it.

The movie's premise reads like the opening to a bad joke: A priest and a rabbi open a bar. Seems Norton's character, Father Brian Finn, and the rabbi, Jake Schram (Ben Stiller), were childhood friends with a girl named Anna (Jenna Elfman). After Anna moved away, Brian and Jake grew up and took their respective vows, doing their best to shake up their stodgy faiths with new ideas. Now Anna's back in New York, and her old friends are both wrestling with more-than-friends feelings for her as they prepare to turn an abandoned loft space into an interfaith nightspot.

Like the two lead characters, who juggle spirituality and worldly concerns on a daily basis, Keeping the Faith has a split personality. On the one hand, it's a wacky comedy with pratfalls, sight gags, and of-the-moment cultural references. On the other hand, it's a straight-faced and rather earnest exploration of what members of the clergy owe to their God and their congregation.

These more serious considerations are not at all treated in a light comic style. And although that change of tone causes the film to exhibit signs of schizophrenia, Norton's decision to treat the problems of his characters seriously is refreshing. Even if Brian and Jake's crisis of faith is more about symbolism than concrete religious belief, at least there is an acknowledgment that these things ought to matter to these people, and that therefore they ought to matter to us.

Norton has a long way to go as a director. When he has the dialogue participants in a two- or three-shot, he's OK, but his editor Malcolm Campbell is often forced to cut together conversations from mismatched bits of film because Norton didn't provide usable coverage. And though his framing device is distracting and unnecessary, he does get great performances from Stiller and Elfman, something not every director has been able to do. While unable to elevate either the comedic or the dramatic side of the story to unexpected heights, Norton nevertheless manages to communicate his enjoyment and engagement with both. A little technical training, and he just might have a second career.

A nightmare on Wall Street

It's not as if the audience isn't warned. About 10 minutes into Mary Harron's film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho, the story's protagonist, Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale), tells us in voice-over that although he is a man of flesh and blood, he is not actually a "real" person. Later, at the film's end, Bateman stares directly into the camera as his voice on the soundtrack confesses that everything we've just seen--almost two hours of gleeful yuppie-bashing and creepy serial murder--has been meaningless.

Does Harron really believe that her film has no meaning? Unlikely. But she has a convenient out if a viewer complains that it's difficult to discern the ultimate point of her movie. Hey, she might say, Patrick Bateman isn't real, and his confession is meaningless. How much plainer can I be?

Say this for Harron--at least she made a movie that's richer and more entertaining than its source material. Both the book and the movie rest on the same basic premise: Narrator Bateman is a faceless Wall Street player who soullessly acquires the status symbols of his mid-'80s milieu, and when the pursuit of material goods proves numbingly unfulfilling, he begins butchering people in his swank apartment. But where Ellis' novel was excruciatingly one-note, Harron almost finds harmony, if not a melody.

Harron's previous film I Shot Andy Warhol was an often offensively ham-handed feminist meditation on celebrity; here she uses her gender biases to better effect. She makes Bateman not just wealthy and handsome, but, in his vanity and bloodlust, a woman's ultimate nightmare. Credit Bale also for being able to pull off a rare mix of sickly sweet and deadly, with a dollop of buffoonery tossed in to gain the audience's sympathy.

There are a handful of truly terrifying scenes in American Psycho, and a few good jokes. There's a great running gag that has Bateman's colleagues getting mixed up and thinking he's somebody else, which becomes both a relevant plot point and a thematic coup. But the story takes a befuddling turn toward the end, taking its cues from that very identity confusion. By the final shot, we're not sure whether the action of the film really happened, or if it was all in Bateman's mind. Worse, we're not sure why it's supposed to matter.

Beyond the fish-in-a-barrel shots at upper-class venality and the genuinely witty attempt to create a romantic bogeyman, American Psycho lacks purpose. Oddly enough, the film's central failing is evident in its other running gag. Bateman has a habit of philosophizing about banal pop music as a way of warming up his victims; his lengthy appreciations of Huey Lewis and Phil Collins are big laugh-getters. But the way that Harron has apparently directed Bale to deliver these monologues--in a wild-eyed frenzy, so different from the rest of his performance--makes their meaning hard to read. Harron should have had Bateman sell us on the idea that "Hip to Be Square" and "Sussudio" really are great works of art; she should have put us behind his eyes, to risk making us a part of what she's satirizing.

Instead, the director pulls back, invites us to scoff at Bateman's pedestrian pop music tastes, and therefore to leave him as an enigma. Which is a failing she admits to readily, if not usefully. --Noel Murray

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