Dir. by Richard Pearce - 1 hr. 48 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
"Leap of Faith" is maybe not the best film Steve Martin has ever done, but I find it endlessly fascinating, moreso than some of his better and better-known movies. There's a pile of talent in the cast, the central idea is a fairly rough one to digest (I mean that as a compliment), and I've always viewed it as a very sad movie. At this point, Steve Martin was much better known as a comedian than as a dramatic actor, and this film is an odd hybrid of drama and comedy. Even though this isn't an even film, there are moments that resound, and justify the rest of the run-time.
Martin plays Jonas Nightengale, who runs a roadshow big-tent ministry, which he explains is better than having a church, which you'd know if you'd ever been to a church. It's immediately clear that Jonas is more of a showman (and a conman) than a holy roller. So when his convoy breaks down in a small fictional town called Rustwater, Kansas, Jonas decides to put on his show right there instead of letting everyone cool their heels until the part one of their trucks needs can arrive. The local sheriff, Will (Liam Neeson), is wary of the entire enterprise, but can't find any legal reason to block them from putting on their event. Plus, he develops a quick crush on Jonas' assistant, Jane (Debra Winger). The problem is, of course, that Rustwater is a town down on its' heels, with high unemployment and a desperate need for rain, lest the seasons' crops dry up and blow away.
As you might expect, one of the major themes of a film about a flamboyant preacher (witness Jonas' sparkly jacket!) is going to be redemption. Despite the message Jonas and company provide, they're more like carnival hawkers or performers (depending on whom you're talking about), talking about "rubes" and about making their daily nut. This leads to one of the many points that might be uncomfortable to watch; when you're dealing with big productions (religious or otherwise), it's always going to be more about the show than about the content of the message. The Nightengale roadshow is no different than an arena concert tour; it costs a certain amount to keep the show on the road, and that's fulfilled by selling merchandise and asking for donations (instead of selling tickets). Certainly, this is an insight gleaned by the problems suffered by well-known televangelists from the 80's (which would have been recent history at the time this film was made).
The idea of redemption comes in the stories of Jonas and Jane. Jonas immediately sets his sights on a waitress, Marva (Lolita Davidovich), who is referred to as "the holy grail of road pussy" by Jane, chiefly because she doesn't immediately succumb to Jonas' charms. Marva's younger brother, Boyd (Lukas Haas), is what gets Jonas to back off: he has real problems, and they're ones that can't be solved by prayer or by snake oil. It's a complicated situation, and when Boyd starts buying into Jonas' act, Jonas is forced to try to deflect Boyd's real needs, and yet not reveal that his entire enterprise is dubious. For Jane, she comes off as someone who would succeed at anything she set her sights upon, and unfortunately, she's chosen evil. Will sees through her, and finds someone who isn't as dishonest as Jonas appears to be, and tries to offer her a different choice.
One of the other aspects I found interesting about "Leap of Faith" is that there is a kind of bait-and-switch happening here. That might be a strong way to put it, perhaps it's more of an element of anger being taken out on the audience. Maybe you didn't know this, but Steve Martin was kind of a big deal as a stand-up comedian. The long version can be found in Martin's excellent book, "Born Standing Up," but the short version is that his stand-up career spun out of his control until he found himself playing the Astrodome.
So, just for a minute, imagine going to see a stand-up show in a football stadium. That's how big he got. Martin quit doing stand-up, shortly after that, not seeing where he could take things after that. Years later (like fifteen years later), Martin finally returns to a stage here, and instead of being straight comedy, it's in the guise of a conman preaching about morality, all while dipping his hand into every wallet he can reach, in a movie that seems hell-bent on stressing how everyone is either conning or being conned. Maybe it's a matter of mere coincidence, maybe the scenario was relevant because this film is actively antagonistic towards what people want out of others, presenting it as open-season for those who were willing to tell people what they want to hear. I'm not sure that anyone other than Martin could answer that, but I can't help but see "Leap of Faith" as some kind of oblique comment on his own career.
There is, as you would expect from a movie about religion, a feel-good ending for pretty much everyone involved. I didn't mind that, but found it fascinating (in a meta sense, once again regarding Martin's career) that the ultimate answer for Jonas Nightengale is that he must quit his ministry and disappear for Boyd, Marva, Will, and Jane to have happiness in their lives. Even Jonas seems relieved when he slips away. He has been running a profitable roadshow for an indeterminate amount of time, but the path he's been on leads nowhere for everyone involved. Or, at least, it doesn't lead anywhere near happiness. He can continue on his path, even more profitably once a genuine miracle has occurred, but it would require corrupting that miracle to do so. If I ever met Steve Martin, probably the biggest thing I'd want to know about is whether or not this was intended to be commentary on his own career. But then again, the Wikipedia entry for this film says that Michael Keaton was the original lead, and quit. So all of this could just be nonsense that I'm reading into the material presented. This film could be an important look at Martin's career through his own lens, or it could just be something he did because the opportunity was there, and was quickly forgotten.
"Leap of Faith" is an okay movie. No, it's a little better than that. It's not "The Jerk" or anything, but it's real. And it's a movie about someone gaining something valuable through artifice. It's also probably a movie that a viewer would interpret wildly differently depending on what stage in life they might find themselves. That, in itself, is a rarer trait than you might think. But that's something that you'll have to figure out for yourself, when you watch it.
3 / 5 - TV