Jonas Nightengale (Steve Martin) and his road train carry a combination of preaching and faith healing from one small American town to the next. It is all a fraudulent simulation, of course, with Nightengale’s charismatic preaching driving credulous locals to donate him thousands of dollars a night in the name of the Lord. When his bus breaks down in the drought-stricken town of Rustwater, Kansas, he faces a skeptical local sheriff (Liam Neeson), an assistant with a growing conscience (Debra Winger), and a teenage boy (Lukas Haas) who desperately believes it is Nightengale who can cure his disability.
Steve Martin plays against type in this unusual comedy-drama, which dances back and forth across genre lines to memorable but mixed effect. It creates an odd result: Leap of Faith is well written by Janus Cercone, and well directed by Richard Pearce, yet it seems one aspect of the film may irritate those who adore other parts – and in opposite directions. This is the complexity of making a film about religion, since it is a film that both criticises it and embraces it in turn. I can see religious audiences objecting to it, and the more ardent atheists becoming enraged by it. There’s a weird, captivating but oddly open-ended film left in the middle for the rest of us. It is not really possible to discuss the film further without revealing its entire narrative, so by all means if you are new to Leap of Faith know that it is a flawed but interesting comedy-drama starring some excellent actors, and stop reading here.
The film’s first two-thirds depict a steady cross between comedy and drama. In the film’s multiple scenes of evangelical worship, Steve Martin makes a predictably strong impression as he dances back and forth across a stage whipping his audience into a fervour. The film showcases just how these apparently miraculous services work: the technology and technique behind the con, as it were. Cercone’s screenplay draws a strong parallel between worship and entertainment: Nightengale’s entire staff are basically a circus, or a stadium rock gig, travelling as a convoy of buses and trucks and moving from town to town for select limited engagements. It is a comparison that works, both in terms of script and execution. Nightengale makes the comparison himself. Do the people of Rustwater get real divine intervention? Of course not -but they do get their spirits raised by one hell of a show.
The characters are all well-developed and entertaining. Steve Martin does not perform drama very often, which is a deep shame because he is remarkably good at it. While his comedic career holds numerous A-grade performances, I still feel audiences have somehow missed out on something by his focusing so much on that genre. Leap of Faith itself was a last-minute choice: Martin became an emergency replacement for an unavailable Michael Keaton. As Nightengale’s main support Jane Larson, Debra Winger delivers what feels like the film’s strongest performance: Jane is regularly engaging in fraud but fast tiring of it, and her dreams of breaking out become entwined with Neeson’s noble-but-measured town sheriff Will Braverman (a more on-the-nose character name you will struggle to find). Winger deftly balance’s Jane’s desire for peace with her addiction to the show – and for Nightengale. Lolita Davidovich is strong support as Marva, a diner waitress whose younger brother Boyd longs for a cure to his disability, while as Boyd himself Lukas Haas delivers something earnest and solid against which Nightengale can be tested.
And what a test: Nightengale knows he is a fraud, and he grows to genuinely like Boyd. He knows Boyd wants a miracle cure, and that Boyd has fallen for his act, and that once Boyd is on stage there is no way Nightengale can cure him or save his own reputation. Then a genuine miracle happens, Boyd appears cured, and Nightengale, Jane, and Braverman are left to survey the most unlikely of wreckage. This is the difficult development that affects Leap of Faith‘s third act. How is the viewer to take not only Boyd’s cure but subsequent rains returning to Rustwater? A mad coincidence? Evidence of God? Cercone could have concluded her screenplay on a decisive note, but instead she shatters her story to pieces. There is a huge risk taken here with the audience’s goodwill. Nightengale gets it: leaving down incognito in the passenger seat of a road train, he pokes his head out of the window, throws his signature hat away, and laughs. It is what Leap of Faith wants you to do. It is absolutely what it earns.