'Leap of Faith': Ask for entertainment and ye shall receive . .


Brothers, now you listen right here, brothers, for I'm here to tell you about a miracle, yes I say a miracle in these stony times.

You of little faith, you know who you are, you smirkers, you reprobates, you sinners, yes I say sinners, I want to put this before you and see if you can scoff, see if those eyes, brothers, those doubting eyes of yours, see if they knit up in disbelief, see if you scoff, see if you snicker. For here it is brothers: a movie about a traveling evangelical roadshow that . . . isn't bad!!!

"Leap of Faith" stars Steve Martin as the Rev. Jonas Nightengale, and when the Rev gets revved, he's almost a miracle in himself. There's something in Martin's loosey-goosey body language, his rubber-boned, rubber-jointed lack of restraint that's infinitely appealing as he struts across the stage, doing the work of God (saving souls) and the work of man (removing wallets). He's a regular old miracle worker, and when he hauls a little old lady up on stage and feels the heat of God spiraling through his arms, he just can't help himself and he gives her such a jolt of energy that, by the powers, she gets up out of her wheelchair and . . . praise be, praise be! . . . walks! Thing is, the way she got to the show was, she walked. She'd been chairbound for all of three minutes.

These long sequences are syncopated almost like musical numbers by director Richard Pearce and they pop and jive, particularly when driven forward by blasts of gospel music ramrodded home by gospel great Edwin Hawkins -- the choir, by the way, is entirely too classy for the shady Jonas Nightengale. Anyway, Pearce loves to jab his camera around rhythmically, playing the professionalism of the miracle huckster against the frenzy of the believers in the audience, then cutting coldly backstage where Jonas' partner, Jane (Debra Winger), is running the show through closed-circuit TV cameras and a radio network, like a Secret Service unit secretly choreographing an inauguration. It's fascinating.

Only when the movie is offstage does it become somewhat tangled and uninteresting. It doesn't seem to be going anywhere (a few of the old chautauqua movies of the '50s -- notably "Elmer Gantry" and "The Rainmaker," both starring that great mesmerizer, Burt Lancaster -- seemed, at least in memory, more complete and dramatically dynamic).

The story lurches into motion when one of the vehicles in Nightengale's four-vehicle convoy blows a gasket on the interstate somewhere on the sun-soaked billiard table known as Kansas and the whole shebang must hole up in the town of Rustwater while they wait for a part to arrive. Four days? Where they gettin' it from, Venus? Whyn't they just try Trak Auto out at the mall? Anyway, Jonas decides to put on four nights of shows, and meanwhile interacts with various just plain folks in the sagging community, hit equally hard by drought and plant closings.

He is attracted to the local waitress, played by Lolita Davidovich, and in one of those coincidences that always seems to happen in the darned old movies, she's the guardian of a younger brother (Lucas Haas) crippled in an auto accident and who yearns for a miracle. But she mistrusts Nightengale because her brother had his hopes --ed earlier by another miracle worker.

Meanwhile, poor Jane is falling in with the local sheriff, a doubting Thomas played by Liam Neeson. Neeson is a peculiar choice to play a small-town Kansas sheriff, with his lilting accent, hang-dog ways and radiant sensitivity. He's an Irish poet kind of Kansas sheriff, I suppose, and I kept wondering what he'd do if he ran into a mean-ass country bad guy? Quote Yeats? The whole Winger-Neeson thing just doesn't work. Her character, in particular, remains a mystery: She seems like a Vasser girl among the carny scum of miracle huckstering, and is never given background enough to suggest a rationale for her presence. She should be running a public TV station in Nebraska.

The fulcrum of the piece turns on the cynical Martin's encounter with the real thing. For reasons nobody can understand, one day, with great reluctance, he's forced to put his hands on somebody with a real crick in his leg, and the blast of bogus faith he unleashes has the same effect as the real thing: The lame boy walks. This is befuddling as all get out, and Martin's first impulse is to turn the miracle into a shrine to the sacred spirit of cash cows and milk all the bucks from it he can.

Alas, something in him has become profoundly turned by his exposure to the authentic; the movie's joke is that the final leap of faith is his own. Still, "Leap of Faith" doesn't end on a potent note. It just ends. Getting there has been all the fun.

'Leap of Faith'

Starring Steve Martin and Debra Winger.

Directed by Richard Pearce.

Released by Paramount.


** 1/2

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