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Leap of Faith

Viewers of "60 Minutes" and "20/20" in the '80s were shocked, shocked, to learn that evangelical revivalists used tricks of the theater to fool their faithful audiences into parting with their hard-earned money. Though gross hucksterism had been movie fodder since Elmer Gantry (1960) and the documentary Marjoe (1972), the new evangelists didn't rely on mere fire and brimstone; modern technology had vastly improved their ability to shill. Pre-performance interviews provided valuable intel. A tiny earphone and numbered seats allowed the revivalist to magically pluck people seemingly out of the air. But of course, no technology is as powerful as the human tendency toward self-hypnosis. Still, the only real attempt to exploit this material was 1992's Leap of Faith. Staring Steve Martin as a midwest revivalist who suddenly seems to be imbued with actual divine powers, Leap of Faith was one of those mid-career attempts by a comedian to prove he can do serious work. And indeed it made sense to cast a stand-up comic in a role such as this one, since at their best comics have the kind of manic thirst for audience-love notable in revivalists, and also like them attain a god-like status among fanatics (Jim Carrey would probably be cast if the film were re-made today). Leap of Faith is not at all funny, nor meant to be, though it is warmly amusing at times. Martin plays Jonas Nightingale, a faith healer who is electronically attached (like William Hurt to Holly Hunter in Broadcast News) to Jane (Debra Winger), the tech wiz who secretly directs his actions. The thrust of the plot is that Nightingale and his squad are stranded in a small town (Meat Loaf and Philip Seymour Hoffman play part of his entourage). For kicks and giggles, and because their daily nut is $3,200, they decide to make the most of it and stage a barnstorming event on the edge of town. But the evangelist raises the curiosity of the local sheriff (Liam Neeson), who resents that Nightingale has swooped in to bilk money out of poor people in a town suffering from a drought and other problems. Nightingale assigns Jane the task of distracting the sheriff into silence (things don't go that way), while Nightingale falls into a sort of romance with the town waitress, Marva (Lolita Davidovich). When Nightingale seemingly cures Marva's disabled son Boyd (Lukas Haas) for real, he attracts thousands more to his tent and finds himself unnerved at what is happening. Leap of Faith is a movie with strong performances but doesn't seem to know how to follow the implications of its story. This is not really the fault of the director, Richard Pearce, who had emerged from series television and TV movies only to return to that domain after this brief excursion to the big screen. Instead, it's the fault of the script. Janus Cercone's screenplay (it is the only credit attached to this name) doesn't want to suggest that Nightingale is a divine; at the same time, it doesn't want to offend middle-America. The solution is to leave everything incomplete and unanswered and evaded, and the film ambles into miasmic and quasi-elegiac fade out. Still, the actors are strong, and there is a good montage sequence showing the spotters and eavesdroppers at work before the start of the first show. Martin is energetic as the hustler in a part that perhaps Robin Williams might have been better for, except that Martin does the off-stage, strong-willed Jonas better. Paramount's extras-free disc offers a fine anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio, as well as French stereo and English subtitles. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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