Steve Martin praises the Lord—but not for real or anything

Steve Martin praises the Lord—but not for real or anything

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the release of Son Of God—re-cut from the History Channel’s Bible miniseries—we’re singling out some of our favorite films about religion, spirituality, or the afterlife.

Leap Of Faith (1992)

When Leap Of Faith was released at the end of 1992, it came at the tail end of Steve Martin’s most eclectic and adventurous period as a film star. (The previous five years had seen the release of Roxanne; Planes, Trains And Automobiles; Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; Parenthood; My Blue Heaven; L.A. Story; Father Of The Bride; and Grand Canyon.) Here, Martin plays Jonas Nightengale, a traveling sham preacher and faith healer in the middle of a never-ending, rube-bilking tour, and audiences could be forgiven for assuming they’d see him in broadly comic mode. Instead, Leap Of Faith offers one of his more serious turns, in a film that examines the rituals and mechanics of belief.

Like most big-studio movies addressing these topics, the picture treats faith more as a vague idea than part of a specific theology. But that vagueness matches the thinness of the line separating traveling preacher and con artist. The con artist side is a better fit for Martin, but the same ironic-showman qualities that limit his preaching intensity also telegraph his fakeness. (Nightengale even cops to it; accused of manipulation, he replies, “Manipulators are sneaky. I’m obvious!”) The tent-revival scenes are invigorating, both for the odd spectacle of Martin praising the Lord and the movie’s peek behind the scenes at the stagecraft of a traveling-preacher show, which combines elements of a rock concert, a magic act, and some spiritual three-card monte in gathering intel on the makeshift congregation. (Notably, Ricky Jay consulted on the script.)

Stuck in a poor and drought-afflicted Kansas town, Nightengale and his team (played by Debra Winger, M.C. Gainey, Meat Loaf, and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an early role) attract the adulation of townspeople and the watchful eye of a suspicious sheriff (Liam Neeson). Nightengale also meets a disabled kid (Lukas Haas) who could use an actual miracle, not just a phony light show. The movie is surprisingly thoughtful in considering whether that phoniness might function like the real thing. In some ways, Leap Of Faith has the feel of a short story, which may be why the finale seems just slightly protracted—it should really end a minute or two earlier than it does. But even with a little home-stretch softness, the film avoids easy answers.

Availability: Leap Of Faith is out of print on physical media, but available for rental or purchase from the major digital outlets, and currently streaming on both Netflix and Amazon Prime.