Hollywood studios and religion traditionally don’t go well together. While there have been successes in the past, most of them fall into either faithful text adaptations, or pure demographic-baiting preachy Hallmark TV “movies-of-the-week.” When popcorn movies touch on religion, (outside of documentaries and a few other rare exceptions), it’s usually used as a genre plot device, as in the genres of mystery (Primal Fear, The Da Vinci Code), horror (The Exorcist, The Omen), comedy (Evan Almighty, Sister Act), social message (Priest 95), or punch-line (Saved!). It’s extremely rare to find a major Hollywood movie interested in exploring faith or religion–at least one that doesn’t contain a righteous message, an underlying political statement, a condescending tone, a what some might call, “anti-Semitic torture porn,” or a poop monster. Leap Of Faith somehow manages to avoid all these things.
Steve Martin plays Jonas Nightengale (whose real name is, interestingly, Jack NEWTON), a con man/traveling evangelist. On the way to Topeka, Kansas, one of his tour buses breaks down and he and his crew are stuck in the little rural town of Rustwater, Kansas. Martin’s character decides to make money wherever he can and put on a show there, a town where a drought is threatening the crops and therefore, the lives of its residents.
Debra Winger (An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment, Wilder Napalm, Forget Paris, Eulogy, Rachel Getting Married), lovely as ever, is Martin’s partner in crime. Other crew members are played by Meat Loaf (Fight Club, Black Dog, Spiceworld, Bloodrayne), M.C. Gainey (Pennies from Heaven, Con Air, Wild Hogs), and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who looks like he kept his wardrobe and use it in Twister four years later. There’s a love interest played by Lolita Davidovich (JFK, Raising Cain, Boiling Point, Jungle 2 Jungle) as a diner owner who has a handicapped brother played by Lukas Haas (Witness, Mars Attacks!, Everyone Says I Love You, Breakfast of Champions, Material Girls). Liam Neeson plays the non-believer local sheriff intending to reveal Nightengale as the fraud that he is. I suppose it’s interesting that he later goes on to play both Aslan and Zeus.
Though it was a flop and received mixed reviews when it was released in 1992, Leap Of Faith works magnificently on a few different levels.
The screenplay, as with most great ones, is carefully structured and escalates from one scene to the next. We first see Nightengale getting out of a traffic ticket in the opening scene using several small cons, eventually getting to a few more eye-opening sequences of how he does what he does. The movie never loses sight of its characters and story development, in addition to being entertaining. There’s not a hint of fluff or any unnecessary scenes in the movie.
As much as I love Michael Keaton, who was originally cast as Jonas Nightengale, I think Steve Martin is much better suited for the movie. It was at a turning point in his career when he was mostly known as the broad, wild-and-crazy-guy with his head between two ends of an arrow in addition to films like The Jerk, The Man with Two Brains, All of ME, Three Amigos, My Blue Heaven, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but also starting to be taken more seriously as an actor in films like Roxanne, Planes, Trains And Automobiles, Parenthood, and L.A. Story. The combination of his scenes on-stage and off is the method through which Leap Of Faith perfectly melds the standup and the later darker side of Martin–kind of a combination of what he did in Bowfinger and the Spanish Prisoner.
The film also avoids many fatal flaws that might have brought down a more simple-minded film. The Winger-Neeson subplot is written not simply as a throwaway but remains interesting throughout the film. The relationship between the Winger and Martin characters is also something we don’t see often in films: a strictly professional work place relationship.
Davidovich, as Martin’s love interest, doesn’t exactly end up where you think she will in the beginning of the movie. A lazier movie also might have focused more on the showdown between Neeson and Martin and asked you to care about whether Martin’s character would get caught or not. A lesser film also would have wanted to explain all the “before and afters” about its characters, but this one spares us the psychological baggage or any drawn-out backgrounds of its characters, focusing mainly on the here and now–the few days Nightengale and his crew are in town.
More importantly, the film doesn’t sink into the Main Street vs. Wall Street bullshit. It gets you emotionally involved with the citizens of Rustwater. They are not portrayed as backwoods simpletons with punch lines. Religion is not treated as simply a serious hobby for the poor. I don’t know if people will still be able to relate to those long gone harsh economic times, but Did You Hear About The Morgans?
Though the third act may at first seem rushed, it’s not as abrupt as it looks. It does leave a few subplots dangling, but the final scenes succeed in what the filmmakers are primarily interested in exploring.
I don’t know what people were expecting in ’92 but it’s rather astonishing to me that the same year people lined up for Sister Act, but ignored an ambitious gem like this. I don’t think i’ve seen any other movie by director Richard Pearce; screenwriter Janus Cercone’s other credit is that Matt LeBlanc/Chimp baseball movie.
And I simply can’t resist any movies that has the following lines in its credits:
Cons and Frauds Consultant
I’m more than happy to give Steve Martin a lifetime pass. As long as he gives us books and films like this and Spanish Prisoner, Bowfinger, L.A. Story every once in a while, he can do all the sequels and remakes he wants.
p.s. the movie makes no mention of the real life incident that a lot of people seem to be accusing it stealing from: the randi vs. popoff.
Leap of Faith is currently available on Netflix instant watch.