Previous entry: Poltergeist
Connection: Cinematographer (Matthew F. Leonetti)
Leap of Faith (1992)
Directed by Richard Pearce
Written by Janus Cercone
Starring Steve Martin, Debra Winger, Liam Neeson, Lolita Davidovich, and Lukas Haas
108 minutes, Rated PG-13
Throughout the history of film, there have been any number of well-known comedic actors that have wowed audiences with exceptional dramatic turns. I’m talking about Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love. Or Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Will Ferrell in the overlooked Everything Must Go. Both Bill Murray and Steve Carell have Oscar nominations for dramatic roles (Lost in Translation and Foxcatcher, respectively). As does Whoopi Goldberg for The Color Purple (as well as a win in 1991 for Ghost, though it could be argued that her role in Ghost is just as comedic as it is dramatic). The late great Robin Williams might now be better known for his dramatic acting chops than he is for his lowbrow comedies.
I would like to add Steve Martin to this list for his performance in this over-looked and under-appreciated drama from 1992.
Among movie comedians, Steve Martin has always been one of my favorites. I’ve been enamored of his goofy demeanor since seeing him in reruns of The Muppet Show at a very young age. There’s a physicality to his performances that has always been vaguely reminiscent of Charles Chaplin or Jerry Lewis, an existentialism to his comedy that makes you think between guffaws. Steve Martin is an undisputed master of winking sidelong at the camera while he does whatever it takes to get a laugh. He knows he’s acting like a fool, but he also knows that you know he isn’t really a fool. And Steve Martin is certainly no fool. To me, that’s what makes him great. If this makes sense, he’s always struck me as a man who acts like an idiot to prove how smart he actually is.
I’ll admit that when I first saw this film I knew nothing about it. Whatever movie we were planning to see was sold-out and a plan to see something else instead was formulated. A poster for this movie hung in the lobby and it was an immediate movie-going alternative for me. Steve Martin was right there on the poster. But I knew nothing about the film. Had never even heard of it, in fact. But the presence of Mr. Martin garbed in a bedazzled sportcoat and the movie’s cynical tagline (Real miracles, sensibly priced) made me think that it was a comedy.
This movie is not a comedy.
It’s a powerful drama about a broken man finding some much-needed faith.
Leap of Faith centers around a preacher named Jonas Nightengale (portrayed by Steve Martin). He’s no ordinary preacher, though. It’s clear in the film’s opening scene (where Jonas manages to smooth talk a police officer into not giving him a ticket) that Mr. Nightengale is a flim-flam man. A snake-oil salesman ready to con every sucker he meets out of their hard-earned cash. In short, he’s a con man and it’s doubtful that he even believes in God let alone works for Him.
Jonas makes a decent living traveling the country with The Angels of Mercy, a roving big-tent revival reminiscent of the circus. It’s quite a show they put on in that tent, complete with old-timey gospel choirs and miracles performed, including mind-reading and faith-healing. In the film, Jonas’ sideshow of religious faith is heading to Topeka for a big score when a truck breaks down, forcing them to set up camp instead in Rustwater, Kansas (“corn relish capital of the world”) while they wait for a part. Rustwater isn’t nearly as big as Topeka, but it’s full of desperate farmers. There’s been a drought that has adversely affected the town’s livelihood, from ruined crops to unemployment lines for the people who can no longer harvest them. A town full of suckers, in other words. Suckers in dire need of a miracle or two.
The problem is, as I’ve already mentioned, no miracles actually take place in Jonas’s tent. It’s all cold-readings and sleight-of-hand, a scam perpetrated by magic tricks and technology. Jonas has plants in the audience, a crew that wanders around town collecting gossip and information (including rock singer Meatloaf and the greatly-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman) to single out marks, and a smart-assed assistant named Janey (played by Debra Winger), who sits backstage watching computer monitors and feeding Jonas information through a well-concealed earpiece. It’s an atmosphere that Jonas presents, a spectacle, a show on par with the greatest of musicals on Broadway. One that heavily-involves the participants and doesn’t allow them to realize they’ve been duped.
But have they really been duped? According to Jonas, he’s helping people, giving them hope. So what if they lose a few dollars along the way?
The sheriff of Rustwater (played by Liam Neeson) doesn’t approve. He is not interested in watching quietly as Jonas milks his dying community for the last of their money. He tries to deny permits. He tries to fight the permits. He tries to shut the circus down through legal means. All of this is to no avail, so he tries a more human approach, confronting Jonas directly, man to man, but that doesn’t work out either. He does his research on Jonas Nightengale and presents the congregation with evidence that Jonas is actually a man named Jack Newton, a life-long criminal and drug addict. All of this is, for Jonas, unfortunately true, but our huckster is able to cleverly turn this admission against the sheriff, which only frustratingly serves to make him more believable in the eyes of the yokels.
By the movie’s end, things have gotten even more complicated by a budding romantic relationship between the sheriff and Janey, prompting her to debate whether or not the morality of her livelihood is a valid means to an end. And there’s the matter of Boyd, a crippled teenager (played by Lukas Haas) who shows up at the revival and magically, mysteriously, miraculously . . . begins to walk unassisted for the first time in years. A real miracle has taken place. Or did Jonas get hustled himself?
The ending of this movie, its final fifteen minutes, are simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking.
There is surprisingly little information on the internet about the movie’s box office gross versus what was actually spent to make the movie, but I’m reasonably certain that this film was a flop. I certainly have never met anyone who didn’t stare at me blankly whenever I mentioned it. A vast majority of the critical takes I can find seem confused by it, unsure how ambiguous the ending was intended to be. The attempts to perhaps market the film as a zany Steve Martin comedy certainly didn’t help.
I don’t know. I think that Steve Martin gives the performance of his career in Leap of Faith. For the first time, he seems to be embodying a character more than standing removed from it. There’s no winking at the camera here. It could actually be argued that Martin plays two characters in this film. The Jonas we see out of the tent is not the same Jonas we see inside of it. On stage, Jonas is consistently mobile, a physical tour-de-force of movement. He dances, he leaps, he slides. He punctuates the right words with the right finger-pointing. And yes, it’s comical to watch him . . . until you realize that, as a viewer, you are in on the joke. You have also been taken in.
The closest thing this movie has ever received as recognizable appreciation was a musical adaptation that opened on Broadway in April of 2012. But even the musical (which I have not seen or heard any music from) closed after only twenty performances. The entire $14,000,000 production was written off at a loss. One hopes that the original film, at least, did better than that.
I am not an overtly-religious person. I don’t attend church regularly. I don’t publicly profess to have faith of any kind. My own beliefs are so skewed agnostic that I try to avoid conversations about such matters. But I was moved by this movie. I am moved every time that I see it. And yes, it makes me question how agnostic my own beliefs really are. Miracles do happen, right? I see signs almost every single day that someone “up there” must be watching out for me.
I think it’s unfortunate that, for whatever reason, the movie has remained, over the years, so criminally over-looked.