Jonas Nightengale is a traveling evangelist, who goes from town to town conning people out of their money in return for his dog and pony Jesus show. One fateful day his tour bus breaks down in a sleepy Kansas town in the middle of a bad drought. Not being one to forgo any opportunity to cash in, he decides to set up and ply his trade there, despite the wishes of town sheriff (Liam Neeson) who worries that the traveling conman is out to fleece the poor citizens of his town. Also along for the ride is Nightingale’s second in command, the lovely Jane Larson (Debra Winger) and a cast of others including a handicapped boy who befriends Jonas and his over-protective older sister, a waitress whom Jonas is trying to romantically pursue. Meatloaf has a minor role too, and he would do anything for love, or bologna sandwiches.
The movie opens with a traveling troupe of busses and eighteen wheelers blazing down the highway at lightning speed. Emblazoned on the front of each vehicle reads the slogan ‘Miracles & Wonders’. And as fast as they’re going it is indeed, no wonder, they get pulled over by a somewhat obtuse and very unfriendly state trooper. It is in this first opening sequence that we are introduced to Jonas Nightengale, the traveling evangelist caricature, loosely based on the real life exploits of controversial modern day figures such as Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart
In this opening scene Nightengale makes a bet with those on board the bus that he can talk his way out of the speeding ticket. At first it appears his attempts are all for naught, but after a little help from his technologically adept accomplice Jane, and a little cold reading, he’s not only talked his way out of the speeding ticket, but encouraged the trooper to make a donation to his ministry. This scene is done so slyly and efficiently that one might think this movie was going to be Christianity’s version of ‘The Color Of Money’ and to be sure, if there was such a movie in existence, this would probably be it indeed.
Everything is not all well and dandy for long though as not too long after this event one of the group’s trucks breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and the entire group that was on its way to a lucrative stop in Topeka, is forced to pull over in a much less financially blessed district of Kansas. Instead of resting on his cowboy hat though the ever opportunistic Nightengale decides to set up his revival meeting right there. During the next few days we are given an informative look at the inside workings of his trade, that includes complicated spying techniques, the passing out of crutches and wheel chairs to elderly, but otherwise not very disabled people, and all sorts of other trickery done in the name of religion, but all for the purpose of turning a buck.
The protagonist here comes in the form of Sheriff Will Braverman. He is one of the few people who spots Nightengale for what he is, and he tries his best to expose him publicly and shut down his circus act that he feels is fleecing his town of much needed revenue. There’s also a waitress and a young crippled boy here who will play a very important role in the movie later on. There are two romantic storylines followed in this movie. The first being between the ever pursuant Nightengale to the ever resistant waitress, Marva, and the second between Nightingale’s assistant Jane and the straight laced town sheriff played by Liam Neeson. The town is also in a major drought and this being a farming community, desperately needs rain, you can pretty much see where the movie is going from here.
This is far from a perfect film. The acting for the most part is very strong, with everyone here putting in five star efforts. The script however is a tad on the predictable and formulaic side. It would have been very refreshing to see what this film could have been like in the hands of a more creative person. For what is here though, there is certainly nothing that bad. The romance angles here to me come off as a tad bit unbelievable at times, but I was never flat out offended by anything. The strongest parts of this movie are when Steve Martin is on full bore, as the charismatic character of Jonas Nightengale. Most specifically the tent revival scenes show that he has a sort of presence and charisma that is not too far away from what a real life preacher would probably need.
Another strength this movie possesses is the excellent music assembled here. It is a true delight to the ears. I’m not much personally a frequent listener or fan of gospel music, but the choir and harmonies featured here are both infectious and inspirational. It perfectly fits with the movie and adds an element of charm to it on top of the charm already produced by the likeability of the actors. The story, for the most part tells itself, and by the ending, even though you see all of the closing events foreshadowed miles away it still was able to affect me in a very visceral feel good kind of way. In a nutshell, everything you think will happen happens, but the performances and overall setting is so strong that you don’t care. In a way it even adds to the movie, while you don’t have the luxury of surprise, you do at least have the old comforting knowledge that in the end, everything will work out for the best.
‘Leap Of Faith’ is one of my all time favorite and most re-watched Steve Martin movies. So with that in mind, forgive me if I did embellish it a little bit here and there. In it Martin gives one the best and sadly most unrecognized performances of his career. Here he brings his comedic talents to a role that requires him to be a charismatic showman, a crafty con artist and perhaps most challengingly, a deeply flawed human being involved in a life changing experience.
The very same life changing experience he’s faked so often, that when as he puts it, the ‘genuine article’ comes along, he’s at first suspicious that he’s been victim to the work of another con. This a movie that is unashamedly Christian in its implied values, so if you’re not the religious type it probably won’t do much for you. If you don’t mind a little gospel goodness every now and then however, then this is a faith affirming feel good ride to the very end.
In this reviewers humble opinion this is indeed a forgotten and rare gem in the Steve Martin catalog. It is my second favorite picture of his, next only to the incomparable ‘Planes Trains And Automobiles’. If you are a die hard fan of his or of movies of this genre (Like 2004’s ‘Saved!’), you will be touched, tickled, and taken away by ‘Leap Of Faith.’
Leap of Faith gets a four out of five: GREAT.