"Manipulators are sneaky. I'm obvious."—Jonas Nightengale
In one of his earliest (and still best) non-comedic starring roles, Steve Martin delivers the goods as a traveling faith healer and evangelist—a modern-day Elmer Gantry who, though a blatantly counterfeit wonder-worker, knows a genuine miracle when he sees it.
Facts of the Case
He calls himself the Reverend Jonas Nightengale. He and his entourage traverse the interstates in a convoy of four massive vehicles bearing the legend, "Miracles and Wonders." Jonas (Steve Martin, Bringing Down the House in a decidedly different manner this time out) has honed the confidence artist's "cold read" into pure science, with his uncanny ability to hypothesize all the pertinent details of a person's biography simply by analyzing and interpreting the host of visual clues most of us overlook. Jonas can fix almost anything: a speeding ticket with smooth, sympathetic patter; an arthritic shoulder with enthusiasm and adrenaline; and a big top full of world-weary hearts with a smattering of rescue-mission sermonizing, a solid dose of hand-clapping gospel music, and a little high-tech flash and dash.
One thing Jonas can't fix—even by the laying on of hands—is a diesel engine, so when one of his twin semis breaks down in the godforsaken hamlet of Rustwater, Kansas, the best Jonas can do is pitch his revival tent and sell the gospel of sanctified salvation to the depressed and destitute local populace. This scheme sets none too well with Rustwater's chief lawman, Sheriff Will Braverman (Liam Neeson, looking even more awkward and out of place here than he did in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace), who feels a paternalistic responsibility not to allow this slick pseudo-shaman to swindle his townsfolk out of their few paltry dollars. Unfortunately for Will, he feels something more than paternal toward the cagey and comely Jane Larsen (Debra Winger), the wizard behind the curtain of the Nightengale road show, who feeds Jonas covert biographical tidbits about tent meeting attendees via wireless transmitter so the preacher can "miraculously" reveal these nuggets onstage. With Jane to occupy the sheriff's mind, Jonas can focus on praising the Lord and passing the donation bucket among the Rustwater faithful.
As it happens, tractor-trailers aren't the only things beyond Jonas's dubious healing powers. He can't seem to make any firm inroad toward winning the heart—or other body parts—of Marva (Lolita Davidovich, Dark Blue, Hollywood Homicide), the skeptical waitress at the downtown diner. And even the supremely confident Jonas realizes he can't do much to help Marva's teenage brother Boyd (Lukas Haas), crippled in childhood by a drunk driver and previously humiliated by another fraudulent faith healer.
Or can he? Jonas is destined to discover that, as another famous Kansas humbug once learned, sometimes the true power people wield is bigger—and more unexpected—than the power they pretend to have.
Hollywood has always struggled to effectively portray religion and those who hold to it. Most mainstream movies either pigeonhole religious people as smug, sanctimonious hypocrites, or ridicule them as hopelessly—even freakishly—naïve. Leap of Faith attempts to put a more realistic spin on the matter, and to its credit, the film largely succeeds. Jonas Nightengale is painted as a huckster and fraud, no question. But the film doesn't try to tell us that Jonas is typical of everyone who professes faith. If anything, he's an aberration. He's even able to rationalize, to some degree, that his smoke-and-mirrors holy show gives the true believers a little hope and comfort, even as he pockets their cash.
The script by Janus Cercone (who also co-wrote the execrable chimpanzee/baseball flick, Ed) and the sure-handed direction of Richard Pearce (Country, The Long Walk Home) wisely avoid casting Jonas as either an overbearing buffoon or an unsympathetic scoundrel. He's a grifter, all right, but one who offers decent entertainment value and worthwhile sentiments in exchange for all the greenbacks. Jonas will pull any scam to make a buck, but he does it with warmth and charm—he may see the world as filled with suckers, but he doesn't totally despise them, and he may even at some level empathize with them.
Leap of Faith only works, therefore, if we can accept—maybe even like—the Jonas Nightengale character. Thanks to a bravura performance by Steve Martin, we can and do. When this film was released in 1992, audiences had been offered few opportunities to see Martin exercise his dramatic muscles (the best prior example being a supporting role in Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon the year before). Leap of Faith was our first real chance to find out whether Martin could actually carry a movie playing a relatively straight lead role. Boy, does he ever. Not only does Martin nail his challenging part perfectly, making an effective anti-hero out of a guy it wouldn't be difficult for the audience to despise, but he etches an indelible impression with his character, commanding every scene even though he's surrounded by such talented dramatic actors as Debra Winger, Liam Neeson, and Lolita Davidovich.
Martin could easily have played Jonas for the sideways wink and the easy laugh, particularly in the scenes where he's shouting and prancing in full-out revival fervor. But unlike many other comedians in similar situations (yes, you, Jim Carrey), Martin uses his comic prowess to inform and enrich his serious performance, not to dominate it. Jonas is the master of the snappy one-liner, but Martin delivers these ripostes firmly in context as from the lips of a real person, not a cartoon. Even amid his most outrageous onstage antics, Martin never pushes himself too far over the top, nor is he irredeemably cruel. His Jonas is always concrete, believable, and human, in a way those who'd previously known Martin only from his comedy albums, Saturday Night Live appearances, and goofy films like Father of the Bride might never have imagined possible. It's a strong, often subtle piece of acting, for which Martin should have received far more plaudits than he did.
Debra Winger—a marvelous actress who would abandon Hollywood a few short years later—gets her most intriguing character since her back-to-back Oscar nominations for An Officer and a Gentleman and Terms of Endearment. Winger lends a wonderful sparkle and intelligence to the film, especially when she's communicating with Martin from her control center on the ministry bus. Unfortunately, the script shuffles Winger's character off into a dopey and unnecessary romantic subplot with the chemistry-challenged Liam Neeson, who spends the whole film glowering and mangling a Midwestern American accent. (Winger and Neeson endure what must be one of the most ludicrous and contrived moments of hammer-fisted symbolism in the history of film, when they share a kiss amid a flock of friendly butterflies.) What we really want to see is more of the interaction between Jonas and Jane—what's the skinny behind their relationship? Were they once lovers? We suspect as much, but the film is noncommittal.
Meanwhile, another fine actress, Lolita Davidovich, seems to have forfeited all the good portions of her role to the editing room wastebasket. (I suspect there was once more substance to the abortive relationship between Jonas and Marva, but we never see it materialize.) Lukas Haas doesn't overplay his part as the saintly crippled kid, but he doesn't bring much to it either. Some memorable moments are pitched in by Meat Loaf, M.C. Gainey, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Jonas's henchmen, and by La Chanze and Delores Hall as mother and daughter members of Jonas's backup choir, the Angels of Mercy, but these people are so sparingly written that we never really get to know any of them.
Speaking of that choir, lovers of gospel music—or fans of vocal music in general—will savor Leap of Faith for the soulful singing alone. Top-notch spiritual numbers (arranged by the legendary Edwin Hawkins) abound throughout the film, and the vocalists are uniformly excellent. My personal favorite is a glorious a cappella rendition of Billy Straus's Change in My Life, though the best inside musical joke arrives in the form of Meat Loaf's Paradise By the Dashboard Light, which plays on the car radio underneath a conversation between Martin and Winger (as noted above, the redoubtable Mr. Loaf is featured as Jonas's bandleader and bus driver).
The movie runs out of conviction—or maybe just gas—toward the end. Having thrown back the veil and exposed the machinations of Jonas and the real-life phonies like him, director Pearce and scribe Cercone don't seem to have nailed down in advance exactly what the point of the expose would be. Consequently, their movie ends with a whimper rather than a bang, and we walk away with even less certainty about the main character and his motivations than we would have had the filmmakers gone headlong for the predictable and trite. For a movie that has so much to say about the value of sincerity, it's too bad that the last few minutes don't ring a bit more…well…sincerely.
One might suggest that it requires a Leap of Faith to expect much from a Paramount catalog release, and that leap goes unrewarded as usual here. The film's transfer is clean, with little of the print damage one might anticipate with a movie of this vintage, and overall gives a naturalistic, well contrasted picture. I was much more favorably impressed, however, by the new Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. From the opening scene of the film, in which Jonas Nightengale's convoy of trucks and buses barrels past the camera, this recording offers plenty of animation in the surrounds and depth in the lower end. For a dialogue-driven feature, we get more than adequate reinforcement to develop a rich, broad stage. Both speech and the lively music come through as clear as church bells. Nice job by the audio team.
Not much else to say, though, because the movie's all we get. It probably would have taken someone 15 minutes to hunt up the trailer for Leap of Faith in the Paramount vault, but no one felt moved to supply that or any other supplemental content. It's a shame, really. Paramount is capable of brilliant DVD work when the Snowy Mountain beancounters feel like justifying the cost (their recent release of The Hunted, for example, is one terrific disc), but they don't feel like it often, and almost never on non-Star Trek back-catalog titles. Thanks for playing the game, Mountaineers, but wake me when you decide to play it full-out for a change.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Twenty years ago, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the then-booming phenomenon of television evangelism. Anyone who believes Leap of Faith exaggerates the trickery employed by bogus miracle workers doesn't know the half of it. Jonas Nightengale is a bush leaguer compared to the likes of the big names in the paranormal-as-entertainment business. Ask James Randi, better known as The Amazing Randi, a noted illusionist who, like Harry Houdini before him, has made a career of exposing the ruses of psychics, healers, and other charlatans.
The real crime, in one Judge's opinion, is that the flimflammers and fakers often kneecap the faith of those simply seeking something greater than themselves in which to believe. In a world where hope and inner peace are all too rare, that's an act of inhuman cruelty.
An enjoyable, involving, at times moving film, featuring an amazing performance by Steve Martin and very entertaining supporting work by the far-too-little-seen Debra Winger. Worth seeing for these two and for the energetic, joyous gospel music, but you'll get caught up in the paper-thin storyline too. Just try not to throw things at the TV as the closing credits roll.
Jonas Nightengale and his Angels of Mercy are found guilty of fraud, but will be set free with time served after a command performance concert for the Court. Paramount is found guilty of lazy DVD craftsmanship, and hereby sentenced to a summer in Rustwater, Kansas. We're adjourned.
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