From the mid 80s through the most of the 90s, Steve Martin had an impressive range of career choices. Some were well-crafted crowd-pleasers (Parenthood, Father of the Bride), some critically acclaimed (LA Story, Roxanne), and some heavily dramatic fare (The Spanish Prisoner, Grand Canyon). There was one movie during that time period that doesn’t fit in either of these categories and yet I think it features one of Martin’s most interesting and underrated performances. In 1992′s Leap of Faith, Martin plays a traveling evangelist named Jonas Nightengale who, by a twist of fate (or was it?), lands in small-town Kansas where every resident is in need of a miracle. Yes, Lord, they need a miracle!
This is not a great film. It’s uneven, has a weak third act, and undercooked storylines. But I cannot deny that Leap of Faith is survived – almost solely – by a dark, rousing performance by one of the funniest men alive. Martin has done plenty of drama before – most notably in 1991′s superb Grand Canyon – but this one is different. Jonas Nightengale is at personal crossroads in life. He knows what he does for people. He puts on a good show, makes people laugh, maybe even makes them feel good about themselves. On the other hand, Nightengale is a fake, a fraud who capitalizes on the problems of everyday people and cashes in on them. But hey, he’s not hurting anybody. He’s just making a (dis)honest buck.
Martin is revelatory up on that stage. It’s a serious performance; he’s not playing it for laughs, though you can’t help but grin at Martin’s manic energy. These preachers are animated and passionate performers, and Martin nails it. Jonas Nightengale is a man on a mission. He is out to heal! He is out to put faith into these people’s lives, to make them believe it will all get better. The Lord is looking out for you, but you gotta believe! You gotta believe in the Lord almighty!
I wish this performance lived in a better film. Leap of Faith is not at all bad; in fact, the film deeply engaging as we follow Nightengale and his crew perform their magic tricks. We watch as the spotters discreetly gather pertinent, personal information from the audience so Nightengale can pump it back at them. Debra Winger plays Jane, Nightengale’s front woman, who sits behind computers and TV screens and orchestrates the great Jesus magic show. This is one well-oiled event; the townspeople walk away with hope in their hearts and Nightengale and his crew leave with cash in their pockets.
I liked the relationship between Winger and Martin. You sense they have a long history together and most likely a complex one. The rest of the supporting cast is one note, with half-baked subplots that go nowhere. Liam Neeson is the sheriff who is suspicious of the whole affair, but ends up falling for Jane. There is a huge chunk of story missing there; I have a sinking feeling many of their scenes were cut, most likely in favor of the story of Lolita Davidovich’s tough waitress Marva and her crippled young brother Boyd, played by Lukas Haas. Nightingale falls for her, but Marva resists. She doesn’t believe his phony act. This sets the wheels in motion for Nightengale’s unraveling.
Despite the myriad of problems, though, Leap of Faith is an entertaining film filled with strong ideas, a simple message, fantastic gospel music and an unforgettable tour-de-force performance by an actor who’s hasn’t been known for his “acting” in quite some time. Steve Martin has made a lot of great films over the years, but Leap of Faith is one of the precious few where he’s not playing Steve Martin.