A little light romance for a street-fighting man

Edward Norton is making his directorial debut - and he has some strong words for his detractors
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The Independent Culture

After appearing in just six films, Edward Norton has already established himself as among the most talented actors of his generation. Two Oscar nominations, one for his coruscating debut in 1996's Primal Fear, and another for playing a virulent skinhead in last year's American History X, have demonstrated his ability to make the characters he plays wholly his own.

After appearing in just six films, Edward Norton has already established himself as among the most talented actors of his generation. Two Oscar nominations, one for his coruscating debut in 1996's Primal Fear, and another for playing a virulent skinhead in last year's American History X, have demonstrated his ability to make the characters he plays wholly his own.

Still only 31, Norton has now made his directing debut with Keeping the Faith, in which he also co-stars. An amiable but uneven romantic comedy set in New York (see review, opposite), its premise sounds like an old music hall routine: a rabbi (played by Ben Stiller) and a Catholic priest (Norton) are in love with the same woman. "The thing I liked about the script was that it treated it seriously, it wasn't just a joke," explains a tired Norton in a New York hotel room. "In a lot of modern romantic comedies, the obstacle to romance is neurosis and in this the obstacle was denominational: she's not Jewish and he's a priest."

Slender, of average height and dressed anonymously in jeans and a brown sweater, the Maryland-raised Norton does not remotely resemble a movie star, while his precise and articulate manner means that he comes across like an older version of the Yale student that he once was.

"By definition it's a very uncynical film, and I liked that. I think a lot of our generation's films now are very ironic. You get characters deflecting their vulnerability with ironic detachment, and one of the things I liked about this is that it had no irony to it," he says.

Keeping the Faith could have been a little less old-fashioned and rather sharper and, ironically, Norton himself gives his least convincing performance yet as the frustrated priest. Nevertheless, the film gave him the chance to cast Milos Forman, who directed him in The People vs Larry Flynt, as an elderly Czech priest and to revisit one of his favourite movies, Jules et Jim.

"It's a wonderful example of a film about three people who all love each other in a relationship over time and how it all gets complicated," he says. "I remember when I saw that movie, what struck me was how Truffaut was having a lot of fun with a story that wasn't about plot, it was about relationships. It's an example of how you can make a very talky movie - I had that in my mind."

Real-life relationships are an area that's firmly off-limits with Norton. Currently seeing Mexican actress Salma Hayek, he previously dated Courtney Love after meeting her on the set of The People vs Larry Flynt and when The New Yorker published a less than flattering profile of her, he was gentleman enough to dash off a letter in her defence. Prior to that he shared a flat in New York - his base since he graduated from college in 1991 - with Drew Barrymore.

The critical response to Keeping the Faith in the US was lukewarm, something that angers Norton, who believes that there's a conspiracy among film critics to keep the younger generation down.

"The film critic community in America is dominated by middle-aged, male baby-boomers who really have a reluctance to pass the torch," moans Norton.

"I read something about Keeping the Faith and the guy said something to the effect that Broadcast News was much better - and that's totally about him saying, 'It's not as good as a film made by a guy from my generation'."

Much of his ire stems from the critical mauling his last film, Fight Club, received. By far the most controversial and misunderstood movie of last year, its story of thirty-something males adrift in a world of Ikea furniture and emotion-numbing jobs clearly touched a chord in Norton, whose grandfather invented the epitome of mundane modern life, the shopping mall. "I think Fight Club, among our generation, had an enormous ripple effect," he states defiantly. "It's probably my favourite of the films I've been involved in."

More than anything, it was a fresh take on a theme that's been simmering in novels and films for 10 years. "I've not tended to respond very much to the Gen-X movies that have come out; they have this banal, low-energy aimlessness, this slacker, angst-driven thing and I always just sit there bored because there's nothing dramatic about it," says Norton. Ironically, his co-star Stiller directed the decidedly mediocre Generation-X drama Reality Bites six years ago.

"The thing I loved about Fight Club was that it was existential; it was about a generation overwhelmed by the pace of modernity and the value system they were supposed to engage in and it took it to this completely surreal place of madness and that to me is what drama should be about."

Norton is sanguine about its commercial failure. " Dr Strangelove, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull were all much bigger box-office flops than Fight Club was and they were critically lambasted at the time. People just eviscerated those films when they came out. I think some movies are too dense in what they're railing about, and they make people uncomfortable. I think that's a good thing, a great thing." Expect to see him in more of the same.

'Keeping the Faith' (12) is on general release

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