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Leap of Faith

Year: 1992
Studio: Paramount
Director: Richard Pearce
Cast: Steve Martin, Debra Winger, Liam Neeson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, M C Gainey, Lolita Davidovich, Lukas Haas, Meat Loaf
This low-key release that I only saw by pure luck on TV one night is one of my favourite films of all time. It's a simple story simply told, well acted and with intelligent and realistic characters and performances and a message that resonates in a way so many dumbed-down, Disney-inspired films go straight for my gag reflex.

We start by meeting the travelling roadshow of Jonas Nightingale, a faith healer, preacher and outright conman who travels the American Midwest playing small towns down on their luck and only too keen to part with ready cash if it'll buy them a miracle.

Rustwater Kansas is one such town, and when fate intervenes and one of the trucks of the entourage has trouble, the whole troupe of Jonas, his principal partner Jane (Winger), driver (Loaf), assorted handlers (including M C Gainey and a very early Phillip Seymour Hoffman), workmen and riggers to erect the tent and accompanying light and sound show and the choir of angels are stuck there for several days, so Jonas decides it's the perfect place to extract some cash.

Except that Rustwater brings them all, in their own way, undone. Town Sheriff Will (Neeson) is having none of it, trying to run the show out of town before it can do any damage to a community already on the verge of bankruptcy after several years of drought. Despite becoming Jonas' polar opposite and enemy, he finds himself drawn to Jane, and her to him.

Jonas himself meets his own challenges. Assuming pretty waitress Marva (Davidovitch) will be another on-the-road conquest to chalk up, she becomes a more difficult nut to crack, especially when her young brother Boyd (Haas) comes into the picture. The innocent Boyd – lamed in the car accident that killed their parents – sees Jonas as his salvation, worrying his sister who can see Jonas for the conman he is.

The Jonas Nightingale show sets up and starts to play, soon raking in the hard-earned money of the townspeople who quickly fall under the sway of the master salesman professing a direct line to Jesus.

But Boyd and Marva get under Jonas' skin, while Jane falls deeper for Will under the pretence of buttering him up for the permits to operate (one of her usual duties).

The character of Jonas Nightingale is a master stroke, and Steve Martin plays him perfectly. With none of the innocent idiot character that made him famous nor the fluffy, family-friendly persona he's used to mediocre success ever since.

Nightingale is a slum kid who's grown up dangerously streetwise, survived on his wits and now has the perfect con. His feel for human nature, encyclopaedic knowledge of his demographics (no matter what the audience) and infectious salesman/showmanship make him a master of his game. Stringing people and entire towns in his wake, he knows very well people's belief can make them do anything, so while cripples dancing or the lame walking at his shows are commonplace and completely normal, he maintains the illusion of having brought them to the bosom of the lord.

Quick witted, fast-talking and terminally cynical, he's as much a joy to watch as he works the crowd at a meeting as he is spinning his con and revealing his true character. As he innocently says near the climax when accused by Jane of never having cared about anybody or anything; 'Janey, I never pretended I did...'

Then it all unravels. Boyd, with little hope of regaining his power to walk (and having been a problem for Jonas to avoid lest it expose him), comes to the stage, touches the feet of Christ, and walks.

Enraged, Nightingale believes they've been played by master conmen. At the same time, such interest has been taken in the town by the national media (because of the 'miracles' Jonas has engineered to maintain the momentum) the figures now look likely to go through the roof from the exposure.

In a sort of confession late one night in the empty tent, Jonas searches his soul in his own way before the statue of Jesus, and both Boyd and Marva come to him, their love and gratitude rattling him further.

Jonas leaves in the night, abandoning the show and finally redeemed. As he drives off into the night with the trucker who's picked him up, the rain starts, and one of the movies' strongest messages is clear; miracles happen, but they're not flashing lights and the hand of God descending from the clouds, they're what they've always been; how love is found (we leave Jane and Will in each others' arms at his house) and how something as simple as the rain can turn lives around.

As uplifting as many Hollywood movies try to be, but with such sharp and cleverly written (and brilliantly acted) characterisations it never falls into corny formula like most films do.

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