What About it?
(for a full summary of the film, scroll down to "What Happens?")
Leap of Faith is on the surface, a movie about a con man, but it treats the subject differently than other fake evangelist films. There are plenty of real life examples of phony preachers to draw from, and Steve Martin does a great job presenting a man who knows how to use his over the top charisma, with Jesus added in, to make a quick buck. Jonas Nightingale is different than most in that he is primarily a businessman, and his sermonizing has a definite off switch. He doesn't attempt to convince his crew of his phony "faith" but rather revels in his own charm and perception, using it at times for their amusement, while relying on his core group to make his "abilities" work. To Jonas Nightingale, the preacher bit, is the perfect con, in that he isn't breaking any laws, and the justification, "We put on a good show." is a sensible one. He does put on a good show. The difference however, between his act and that of any other performer is that a man of God can ask for more money. Jonas has an uncanny skill at reading people and their cues, but he's not content with that. His method of having Jane feed him research and cues about people in his earpiece, makes it easy for him to amaze people. Yet, he never believes his own hype. Jonas knows his skills, but doesn't need the self congratulation that many of his ilk do. It's enough for him, that he's taking the money from the suckers who give it. Beneath it all, he's coldly practical and remote, his association with Jane being his only real relationship.
Richard Pearce presents a very believable world here. The "beaten small town" atmosphere comes through very well and is a great contrast with Nightingale's larger than life show. The attention paid to that show is also terrific, giving us a look at the inside of a sophisticated con operation, that has to appear amazingly convincing to the audience. Basically we're given a world and a cast carefully constructed to get Jonas to a particular point. The people he's surrounded with tell us a lot about the man.
Debra Winger's portrayal of Jane presents a perfect way to take a look at Nightingale. Jane is jaded herself and readily subscribes to the "good show" philosophy. She is privy to every detail of his act, playing a crucial part of it, serving as his "gift of second sight." She doesn't have his charm or his coldness however. She wants something to care about, which initially we hear in her talking about getting a puppy, and later, we see more, in her attraction to Sheriff Braverman. She has difficulty justifying taking money from a town that's practically destitute, whereas Nightingale has no qualms about it. Jonas and Jane are kindred spirits of a sort, and we see that Jane's more caring nature is one of the reasons she sticks with him, as evident when she tells Sheriff Braverman the story of Jonas' mother leaving him. In Jane's opinion, measuring by the scale of Jonas' childhood, his con man preacher act is practically a good deed, rather than a criminal activity. We find the two of them late in their relationship, and Jane has clearly had some doubts over the years, but in this town she's given a motivation to break out of the arrangement.
Jonas doesn't come across as "evil" so much as a slick and amoral opportunist. He doesn't set out to hurt anyone, but neither will he sacrifice his own profit, for the sake of anyone else's well being. He is supremely self interested and entrenched in his habits, so much so that his act is second nature. The lines he draws are interesting and practical. His "healings" are all staged, so when he encounters Marva's little brother, and talks to him about faith (not realizing he can't walk) it only takes him a moment to change his approach after Marva reveals their past incident with a faith healer, and he tries to discourage Boyd looking to God for help. Clearly, he wants to avoid Boyd becoming a problem at a revival meeting. However his advice to Boyd about not waiting on God to help him comes through as very sincere and may in fact be what Jonas truly believes. "Fine, you believe that if you want. I'm gonna run." he says,and that is really what his character is all about. Belief in anything but his own abilities simply doesn't enter into his life. Steve Martin is perfect for the character, giving both the exuberant showman and the cold calculating planner equal weight, and appearing sincere on both sides.
Lolita Davidovich does a fine job as Marva,portraying her as cold and inflexible, at least towards Jonas. Her stance makes perfect sense when she reveals the story about the accident that killed her parents and crippled her brother. She's certainly wise to treat Jonas this way, as her suspicions are all correct. Jonas, however is so used to being able to control people, that his inability to reach her is a challenge he can't set aside (until he learns about Boyd's legs)
Liam Neeson's Sheriff Will Braverman is Jonas Nightingale's opposite. He only speaks plainly and doesn't seem to care about money in the slightest although he cares deeply about his town and the people in it. His efforts to stop Nightingale would be very effective if Nightingale wasn't so adept at his trade, a fact which Will acknowledges freely. He doesn't like what's going on, but he's not a movie sheriff with a crazy vendetta or an ego conflict. He does what he can reasonably do and when it doesn't work, he reluctantly accepts it, other than his personal interest in Jane. He proves himself adaptable as well, proposing a serious relationship to her after only knowing her for days, because he knows that if he doesn't act quickly she'll be gone. He's the perfect character to have a "pissing match" with Jonas, as he is as resolute in himself as Jonas is, only his lifestyle is more of benefit to others. Jonas knows very quickly that Braverman is a possible problem where Jane is concerned, but it's one problem that's beyond him. The part seems very natural for Neeson and he gets the Sheriff's quiet competence across enough to make Jane's turn around believable enough.
The supporting cast is very solid. Lukas Haas is a sincere and believable Boyd, impossibly trusting and hopeful. Jonas crew are all played well, including Meat Loaf as Hoover and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the tiny part of "Matt" Every character here is essentially there to expose a certain part of Jonas and it gets a full character across well although the man himself is not typically very revealing and given to calculated interactions. All of the characterization has a devastating effect, when we realize that in this case, the one thing this particular con man/evangelist can't deal with is, as he tells Boyd "the genuine article." Obviously the actual healing would only help his business, but Jonas whole life is based on his lack of belief in anything miraculous. The con being him adjusting for the indifference of the universe by his own stacking of the deck. Psychologically, he is not able to function in his old role anymore, in the face of this undeniable proof, which he of course recognizes immediately.
It's telling that his immediate response to the miracle is anger. Essentially, he has just been proven undeniably wrong in his own house. It doesn't matter that no one else can see that. When Boyd repeats his own words about being a fake, "Well, what difference does it make, if you get the job done?" He reveals an understanding he never would've admitted earlier, "Kid, it makes all the difference in the world." He's also able to get more of an understanding about his own childhood, as we see when he gives Marva the message for Boyd "Tell him, just because a person doesn't show up, doesn't mean that the person doesn't care about them." Jonas is now at a place where there is much he doesn't know, and he's lived so long by having all the answers. It makes sense, that his response is to just walk away, as he is essentially starting everything all over again. It may be tempting to some to take the move as a religious message, but I didn't see it that way, simply as a story about a very determined and flawed man being forced to realize he has a long way to go. A miracle happens, but Jonas can't explain it. To me, a big point was the fact that something happened that he did not know. To define it as a "Jesus" experience, would drastically simplify the change to the character. We know that Jonas is well versed in matters of Jesus and he does have angry words towards him after the healing, but he's talking to himself as much as he's addressing God.
It's not quite a redemption story, but close, a movie that ends with that possibility opened up. As it's presented here, that is is nonetheless a remarkable thing. Jonas doesn't know where he's going, only that it's someplace he hasn't been before, and he seems happy enough about that. The film talks a lot about hope, a subject Jonas knows because he gave up his own, in order to make money from the hope of others. Nobody argues with his arguments that people without it can leave his shows with hope. He gets how valuable it is, it's what keeps him in the money. We're left with the thought that for everyone involved; the town getting rain, Boyd now walking, Jane finding someone to care about, and Jonas Nightingale himself, looking at the universe in a brand new way,there is some hope. It's an interesting ending in that rather than wrap it up happy with a bow, we end at the very beginning of something, which is really what hope is. If we followed the characters a little longer, we may find problems and flaws come back, but Leap of Faith is content to leave that for another story.
A bus marked "Miracles and Wonders" comes into focus driving down a dusty road, and being pulled over by a police car. Inside the bus, we find travelling evangelist Jonas Nightingale (Steve Martin) making a wager with his crew concerning the outcome of the stop, before exiting the van. The bus' driver, Hoover (Meat Loaf) is concerned, because he has a DUI which could get him into trouble, but Jonas doesn't seem concerned. He puts on a small microphone so his crew can hear the events and presents himself to the cop as the bus driver. The officer is initially not interested in Jonas patter. He fails to produce his license and registration and tells the cop "I'm a law abiding citizen just like yourself. The only difference is I know there's more to life than my nine to five. If you knew that, you'd still have a wife and daughter to go home to." This angers the cop enough to cuff him and put him in the car. In the car, Jonas appeals to the cops emotions with inside information about him losing custody of his daughter, intuiting many personal details with uncanny accuracy. Jonas wins his bet to everyone's amusement, and reveals one of the cues to his assistant Jane (Debra Winger)
They soon have a problem with a tractor trailer that's part of the Jonas Nightingale convoy and Hoover decides to pull over at the next town, Rustwater, Kansas. They soon find the local mechanic won't have the part they need for four days and Jonas decides they'll put on an unscheduled show in the town. The Nightingale crew stops at a local diner, where Jonas quickly introduces himself to a waitress Marva, (Lolita Davidovich) who is quickly put off by Jonas showing off his "Miracles and Wonders" jacket. She suggests he attempt to fix the broken jukebox by "laying on of hands." He tells her "Gee, I wish I could Ma'am because I know how Jesus loves to rock." Jonas tells Jane that Marva likes him, but she doesn't buy it. He then starts talking about preaching, love, and what people need, mainly for Marva's benefit.
Jonas and Jane stop at the local sheriff's office to get a permit. Sheriff Will Braverman (Liam Neeson) refuses the permit citing the town's high unemployment and tough times. Jane remains respectful and reasonable, while Jonas accuses him of restricting trade and freedom of religion and threatens a lawsuit. Braverman relents and they get the permit. Driving away with the permit, Jane gives Jonas facts about the town's economic troubles, and he reminds her that they need to make $3,500.00 per day. Jane tells him they've had five years of dry weather and if they don't get rain this weekend, the current years crops will fail too, adding "we can use that, put it right in." Jonas gets a radio spot, and uses the information Jane gave him to make an appeal to the townspeople. to attend his revival meeting that night.
Jonas starts inviting people personally while his crew sets up his enormous tent, and his singing group the Angels, practice singing, the activity attracting some curious locals' attention. The fire marshal shows up after the set up is done, telling Jane that Braverman sent him to check for violations. When Jane sees Braverman pull up, she says hello and offers to buy him a beer. He asks her, "Tell me, do most cops fall for your act?" She can't help but laugh, and says "Yeah." Braverman responds "I'll bet they do." He insists that he's on duty, but she gets him to laugh before he takes off.
Later, Jane asks Jonas how things are going with Marva. Jonas says she is not at all interested, even though he's "using all his A material." Jane says "So you strike out for once in your life, what do you care?" Jonas says "She's got me curious now. She's got fuming down to an art. It's a matter of principle, like a quest." Jane says "Sort of a holy grail of road pussy kind of thing?" He answers, "Eloquent as always." Approaching showtime, Jonas' crew starts selling Bibles, T-Shirts, Tambourines and bumper stickers." We see Jane sitting at a panel of computers and camera monitors. with a headset. She gets personal information on the audience from the crew members circulating in the crowd. Jonas consults with her before going on stage, testing her broadcasting to the small receiver in his ear. Before going out he tells her "And now to give some empty lives a little meaning." Jonas enters the stage to an elaborate musical production and smoke show. Jane keeps him posted on the state of the audience.
He tells them a story about a city man named Thomas who was paralyzed by fear until he found faith in Jesus. The crowd starts responding. He then tells them "I feel a healing coming on." and asks for a token of the audience's faith and passes around offering buckets. Jane tells him the offering doesn't look promising. She gives him personal information about people in the audience which he addresses to their amazement. He starts calling people on stage for "healing." by laying hands on them dramatically. He makes a special show of an elderly woman in a wheelchair, who gets up and walks. Braverman watches from the back disapprovingly. He gives Jane a hand signal when she spots him. After the show, they find they made about $4,000.00. Braverman stops at the bus and Jonas goes outside to talk to him.
Braverman: Nightingale, we both know there's nothing I can do legally. I'm here man to man. Folks have lost their jobs, land. They can't afford to feed their families, so they sure can't afford a con man like you. DO a good thing. Pack it up.
Jonas: Well, that's some plain talk, Will, so I'll give you a little in return. Let's assume for a second I was what you said I was. Up in New York, they got Broadway shows that cost $65.00 a pop just to walk in the door. Now, maybe you like the show, and you're humming a tune, or maybe you don't, and you kick yourself. I give my people a good show, plenty of music, worthwhile sentiments, and most of them go home with a little hope in their lives that wasn't there before. Now, usually, I only do towns that can afford me, but what about towns like this that really need me?
Braverman: You don't care what theses people need. Your truck broke down and you're looking to cash in.
(Jane overhears the exchange, and adds "oh, pissing contest, can I watch?")
Braverman: I won't just go away.
Jane follows the Sheriff as he walks away reminding him of the drink she offered. The next morning Jonas gives Jane a puppy she had wanted, telling her he's worried about her lack of companionship. He also asks her about the time she spent with Braverman as she was out until 2 in the morning.
At the diner we see Marva having fun with her little brother Boyd, (Lukas Haas) who's shooting her with a squirt gun from a booth. Jonas comes in and notices Boyd has a chess board on the table. He sits down to play, saying he used to be a chess champion. Boyd remarks that Jonas did a neat trick yesterday and then shows Jonas his own sleight of hand trick with a bottle cap. Boyd asks Jonas if he believes in miracles, but Jonas says he'd rather hear what Marva thinks. She says "I believe in life, what it does to you, and what you do back." Jonas tells Boyd "Never underestimate the power of belief Boyd, with it, I've seen the mute sing Hallelujah and I've seen an old man get out of his wheelchair and dance. When you've got it,you've got the power of every ocean and every star,right in your hand and without it, you've got nothing." Marva excuses herself and Boyd tells Jonas that she thinks he's a fake. Jonas says "Well, maybe I am, and maybe I'm not. If I get the job done, what difference does it make? Boyd wins the chess game and Jonas goes outside to see Marva. He tells her "You know Marva, I've seen a lot of people lie to themselves. They don't fool anyone." She asks if that's his area of expertise, and he says "My talent is telling people the truth." He shares some observations with her, but she challenges him about what he wants. He says "I just want to know why you gave up." She tells him " A drunk truck driver did that, four hours stuck in a crash watching our Mom and Dad die, (We see Boyd walking with crutches.) The doctors did all they could, the tests, stuck him with needles a foot long, all for nothing. SO they had me take him to a preacher. The preacher got him up on stage and when it was all over,he was still on his crutches, Now, do you want to know what that man said to my little brother? He said that it was his fault, cause his faith wasn't strong enough. Well let me tell you something, all that boy has is faith. SO the last thing he needs is another phony messing with his head, Okay? And the last thing I need is another snake oil salesman using my little brother to get me into bed." Boyd comes out and asks for a rematch, but Jonas says he has to go.
Meanwhile, Braverman talks a walk through some farm property with Jane. He tells her about crops and tries to convince her that she doesn't need Nightingale. Jonas goes out for a jog and finds Boyd lifting weights. He asks Boyd about the doctors. Boyd tells him that he'll walk again if it's God's will, but Jonas suggests he not wait around for God. Boyd says "I believe everything happens for a reason." Jonas says "Fine, you believe that if you want. I'm gonna run." Jane gets back to the bus a little late before the nights show and Jonas questions her about it, knowing she was with Braverman. Jane tells him "Will says he's got a little surprise for you, something about giving you enough rope."
That night, Jonas tells a story about how different he was all his life. He tells them he was born in the Appalachian mountains with the caul which gave him "the second sight." He does a question and answer session with Jane taking questions in the audience which Jonas answers from the stage. He then reverses his jacket, revealing a gaudy shiny material, saying he feels a healing coming on. He lays hands on selected people in the crowd until Braverman interrupts to "testify." He then tells everyone that Jonas was born Jack Milton and didn't come from the Appalachians, but the Bronx and lived in an orphanage from five to fifteen before turning to crime, and listing his offenses. Braverman tells the crowd, "If you feel you got a good nights entertainment, the go ahead,tip the dancing bear, but if you think this money's going to a man of good, better think again." People start leaving, and Jonas takes the stage. He tells Will that's all true, but then turns it around into a redemption story to make him look more relatable. Braverman asks the crowd about the money they gave him,but they defend their choices. He tells them God told him there would be a sign.
After the show Braverman comes to see Jane, saying he was just doing his job. She says "Doing your job is one thing, trying to destroy a human being is another." He remarks, "Nuclear winter couldn't destroy that man." She disagrees and tells him a story about how Jonas ended up in the orphanage, after his mother told him to wait on a street corner and left him there, where he waited for four days and that it wouldn't be surprising if he was out hurting people, but he's not, only giving people a show that they thank him for.
The next day Jonas is woken up to find his statue of Jesus "weeping." Braverman tells him he's outdone himself and confirms with his officers that no one came in the tent that night. Jonas declares a miracle, and people start travelling to the town from miles around when news gets out. Getting ready Jane reminds him there will be real sick people at the show. He tells her to make sure they're seated in the back, and remember their "malpractice insurance, your faith wasn't strong enough." Jane voices frustration with their lifestyle and makes fun of her feelings for Braverman and small town life.
Braverman takes her for a walk and talks about settling down, impressing her by showing her some butterflies. She remarks that he barely knows her, but he tells her he knows she'll be gone soon so he has to move quickly. She tells him to come to the show that night to watch Jonas working ridiculous phrases from the crew into his sermon. She shows up late that night after the show is already underway. People in the audience report finding extra money in their wallets. (the crew planted twenties) Jonas starts healing, but Boyd gets to the stage. Jonas acts as if he doesn't notice him and claims he's "all out of healing for the night." Jonas leaves the stage and expresses his disappointment that he had to go on without her help. Jane points out the monitors where the crowd is chanting for "one more." Jonas goes out onstage and tells them that everyone must believe, even Will, who he knows has doubt, which puts Boyd's healing 'in their hands" Boyd approaches the Jesus statue and reaches for the tears. He stumbles on reaching upward, and Jonas tells them that Boyd's fate "rests in the heart of a cynic." Boyd recovers, however, and starts walking. Jonas starts proclaiming another miracle. Marva starts crying with happiness. The press is waiting for him, but Jonas is angry, pushing people out of his way. Jane asks him what happened and he tells her he was hustled. Jane tells him there's no way those two were hustling him. The crew is ecstatic, congratulating him on the show. They suggest having Boyd in the show all the time having him reenact it. Jane gets angry, saying "This is different." and resents Jonas considering taking the healing away from Boyd for a "sideshow."
Jonas goes in the tent and talks to the Jesus statue. He starts "disagreeing" with Jesus, telling him the meek get nothing, and that love never starts. Boyd shows up and interrupts him asking if he can go on the road with him. Jonas discourages him and tells him he had nothing to do with his healing. Boyd disagrees, but Jonas tells him, "Look, I run a show here, a lot of smoke and noise, and it's strictly for the suckers. I've been pulling one kind of scam or another since I was your age, and if there's one thing I know, it's how to spot the genuine article, cause that's what you gotta watch out for,not the cops. You can always get around the cops. The one thing you can never, ever get around is the genuine article. And, you kid, are the genuine article.
Boyd: Are you saying you think you're a fake?
Jonas: I know I'm a fake.
Boyd: Well, what difference does it make, if you get the job done?
Jonas: Kid, it makes all the difference in the world.
Marva finds them talking and tells Boyd it's time to go. Boyd asks if he can go with him and Jonas says he'll meet him at the diner at ten in the morning. Marva thanks him. She says "I don't know why my little brother's walking, but I'll be grateful for the rest of my life." She turns to leave, but he tells her that tomorrow at ten, Boyd will be standing in front of the diner, and asks her to give Boyd a message from him. He says "Tell him, just because a person doesn't show up, doesn't mean that the person doesn't care about them." Jonas looks at everyone camped out around the tent.
We see Braverman in bed and then Jane close by, sitting up at the window holding butterflies, then letting them go. She gives him a kiss. We see a hotel room with Jonas' sparkling jacket left laid out on the bed with an envelope for Jane. We see Jonas catching a ride with a passing truck. He asks the driver where he's headed and he says Florida. The driver asks if he's in trouble. Jonas says "No, no, no, no, no. Maybe for the first time in my life, I'm not." As they drive,it starts pouring down rain. Jonas starts laughing. We see that everyone in town is ecstatic. Jane goes to the hotel and finds the envelope, which contains the ring she'd always asked him for. We hear Jonas calling for rain from the truck, saying, "Thank you Jesus."