On a sleepover many years ago, I watched Leap of Faith with some friends of mine. We'd rented it figuring that Steve Martin was always good for a laugh, but while the movie had its comedic moments, it was really more of a drama. We watched it anyway, and it always stuck with me as a surprisingly touching film about opportunism and genuine faith. Years later, when a college professor showed my class Elmer Gantry, I was struck by the similarities between the two films. I thought the Burt Lancaster movie must have had some influence on the writer of Leap of Faith. I still do, though there's no mention of a connection on the imdb listing for either movie. But while bits of the story may be borrowed, it's still an inspiring film on its own merits. I finally rented it for my family this week.
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As the film opened, I was surprised to recognize several actors, none of whom, barring Martin, I remembered from my first viewing. I was excited to Liam Neeson as Will Braverman, the sheriff of the small town in which phony preacher Jonas Nightengale's (Martin) bus breaks down, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays one of Jonas's assistants, is always a pleasure to watch. But I was most tickled to see M. C. Gainey - the artist formerly known as Mr. Friendly on LOST - as another of Jonas's henchman, ironically named Tiny. Once I honed in on him, I remembered his performance, particularly in one scene in which, in ever so neighborly a fashion, he invites a little old lady at Jonas's revival to sit in a wheelchair near the stage, setting her up to be a pawn in the charismatic showman's game.
Jonas is very good at what he does. With a crew of dozens, he erects a massive tent where curious townspeople trickle in and get an evening full of energetic preaching, boisterous gospel tunes and so-called healings. His ushers gather intel on the folks in the crowd and pass it along to Jane (Debra Winger), Jonas's right-hand gal, who patches it through to him so he can impress everybody with his insight into their lives. They have quite a lucrative operation going, and in a small town like this, Jonas figures it will be easy to pull one over on a bunch of yokels.
But Will isn't buying the act, so while many others come to embrace him and hand over their hard-earned cash, Jonas has to do some quick thinking in order to keep ahead of the sage leader. To complicate matters, Will and Jane hit it off, and her conscience begins to haunt her. Meanwhile, Jonas develops an eye for local waitress Marva (Lolita Davidovich), whose younger brother Boyd (Lukas Haas) was rendered lame in the car accident that killed their parents. Boyd, a young man of deep faith, has been hoping for a miracle ever since, and Marva doesn't want his hopes to be dashed by another con man pretending to deliver.
While Martin does have amusing moments in the movie, particularly when he's getting really into his sermons, he's pretty low-key throughout much of the movie, first as a cynical money grubber and then as a man who slowly begins to understand that there is a higher purpose at work in the world. Just as inspiring as Jonas's personal journey is the way the townspeople come together to support one another. Each is as destitute as the last, but they put aside their own concerns in favor of helping their neighbors, and all wind up better for it. The only ones whose position at the end of the film is unclear are Jonas's roadies, who don't seem to have picked up their leader's recent altruism but will undoubtedly have a hard time continuing without their leader.
There's some nice cinematography on display, particularly during the revival scenes and one beautiful moment involving butterflies, and the music from the gospel choir is fantastic.
This isn't a typical Steve Martin comedy, but it is both entertaining and thought-provoking, so take the plunge into Leap of Faith.
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