Morally shallow Leap of Faith offends rather than entertains
Directed by Richard Pearce.
Screenplay by Janus Cercone.
Starring Steve Martin and Debra Winger.
By Joshua M. Andresen
Leap of Faith is a horrible, even offensive film. Its substance is shallow, its moral reprehensible, and none of its characters are endearing in the least. The music could have been great, but seemed awkward and out of place in the context of the film. Though not badly acted, this movie is not at all entertaining. Supposedly funny, the film will strike a nerve with many people.
Reverend Jonas Nightengale (Steve Martin) is a con man touring the country as an evangelist. He gives revivalist tent meetings, performing "miracles" and relieving people of their money. The Nightengale troupe is on its way to Topeka when they encounter some trouble on the road. They end up marooned in the small town of Rustwater, Kansas, so Jonas decides to set up shop there to milk the local inhabitants for all he can.
He meets some opposition from the local sheriff (Liam Neeson), who sees Nightengale for what he is, a skirt-chaser, a liar, and a thief. He attempts to persuade the poor townfolk, mostly farmers in the midst of a long drought, that Jonas is nothing but a con man after their money. Nightengale is too slick, though, and foils him every time. Sheriff Will also confronts Nightengale, asking for him to take pity on the people, most of whom have little money. The reverend responds:
"Up in New York City they've got Broadway shows that cost $65 a pop just to walk in the door. Maybe you like the show and leave humming a tune, maybe you don't and kick yourself. I give my people a good show, plenty of music, worthwhile sentiments, and most of 'em go home feeling like they've got some hope in their lives that wasn't there before."
The problem with this is that it remains clear that delivering hope to the people is the furthest thing from Nightengale's mind. He is after the money and the ego-boosting praise his shows generate.
The plot is further complicated by a love interest between Will and Nighengale's second-in-command and technical coordinator, Jane (Debra Winger).
The climax of the movie occurs when Jonas is called on to perform a true miracle. Preparing to blame his failure on the crowd's lack of faith, he goes out to make a decent performance of it. After the reverend lays hands on young Boyd (Lukas Haas), the boy gets up, hobbles over to the giant crucifix at center stage, and throws away his crutches. Jonas is dumbfounded and quits his evangelizing career, supposedly because he realizes there are powers greater than him at work in the world. Jane also quits, finally won over by Will.
The problem with this ending is that Boyd begins to devote his life to Jonas, rather than the true "powers that be." There is no catharsis. Jonas ends up running away in the middle of the night, Boyd ends up thoroughly confused, and Jane and Will end up questioning what went on and what they believe.
The acting in Leap of Faith is good (Steve Martin makes an excellent evangelist/con man) and the singing of the gospel choir (the Angels of Mercy) is wonderful. Overall, though, this is a poor movie that will offend most and turn the rest away.