Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

LEAP OF FAITH (1992) **

Directed by Richard Pearce. Written by Janus Cercone. Cast: Steve Martin, Debra Winger, Lolita Davidovich, Liam Neeson, Lukas Haas. Photography, Matthew F. Leonetti. Editing, Don Zimmerman. Production design, Patricia von Brandenstein. Music, Cliff Eidelman. A Paramount release. 108 minutes. Rated PG-13 (plot and a few profanities might disturb some youngsters).

This country no longer needs the proverbial, good five-cent cigar. What it needs is a multi-million fund for a big, muckraking, round-the-clock, "60 Minutes"-like governmental agency with teeth, to take on the unorganized but multi-billion fraud, swindle and scam industry.

It's all around us: boiler-room deceptions that operate by phone, by official-looking junk mail, or on TV. Phony "charities," life, health. burial insurance schemes; sham investments, bogus "retirement communities," or cheating land-schemes. We are all targeted daily, starting with those letters that state "You, John/Jane Doe, have won a million dollars Just send us $10 or $20 to defray expenses and become eligible."

The victims are mostly older, gullible people, who, in the least-painful scenario may get stuck with unwanted magazines and in the worst-case scenario can have their life savings wiped out.

Among the oldest forms of deception is the cruel imposture that exploits the religious faith of simple people. As seen, for example, in "Leap of Faith." This movie has the makings of a dynamite expose of charlatan evangelists and itinerant faith healers, but in spite of its initial promise and several brilliant parts that follow, it evolves into a confused, ineffectual mishmash that compromises, as it were, the integrity of its cynicism.

In "Leap," Steve Martin is a road evangelist who calls himself Jonas Nightengale. He has perfected a tent-show operation, a gold mine. It is a state-of-the art, high-tech affair, complete with a large staff of conspirators, a huge (and excellent) all-black gospel choir, computers, TV screens, hidden microphones and surveillance equipment.

Jonas's lieutenant-manager is Jane (Debra Winger). Among her accomplishments, she gets fed information about the audience by the staff and, from her multi-screen TV console, she relays useful facts to Jonas who wears a hidden ear piece: "in sequins, in row two, a pregnant teenager"; "positioned in row one is the old lady with rheumatism"; behind her are the man with a drinking problem, the woman with neighbor troubles, the widow of a farmer who killed himself when he lost everything, and so on.

Nightengale is a master scam artist and performer. In the film's opening, when his motorcade gets stopped for speeding, Jonas, without the benefit of computerized information, somehow guesses the cop's family problems and ends up by getting the man's gratitude plus a contribution. It is all extremely unlikely but for a while it entertains in a sick way.

Engine trouble has the custom buses and trucks stuck for a few days in totally depressed Rustwater, Kansas, a farming community afflicted by record unemployment and a killing drought. Nightengale and Co. decide to make the most of it. As it is, in another outrageous improbability, Jane has at her electronic fingertips all possible data about Rustwater, down to the name of the richest man in town.

With efficient , D-Day-like logistics, the troupe pitches its tent and Jonas pitches his scam in a show of glitter, smoke effects and music, far more a rock concert rather than the thunderings of old-style, hellfire and damnation preachers.

Jonas has chosen his pseudonym well. He poses as a brother of mercy, in the savior line of Florence Nightingale, but he is a consummate showman, like Florenz Ziegfeld At the same time Jonas is the familiar, wild-and-crazy guy from Steve Martin's Saturday Night Live shticks.

The machinery of the "spiritual" snake-oil salesman is beautifully oiled and attention-getting, yet the film's development suffers from overkill. In a world where, as we all know, anything that can go wrong, will, neither the aplomb of Jonas nor his electronic gimmickry or the troupe's sleight-of-hand tricks (note how "magically" extra dollars appear in donors' wallets) ever falter. As in the recent "Sneakers", the combined excesses of techno-gadgetry and of plot twists make the movie increasingly unbelievable while the characters, albeit colorful, get no dimensions or development.

Two subplots are implausibly worked in. One has the film's likable Sheriff Liam Neeson fully aware of the fraud and trying to expose it. But he is checkmated at every turn by Jonas who, using jiu-jitsu principles, turns reverses into advantages. Neeson too knows from the start that Jane is a manipulatrix, yet a dumb, out-of-character, soupy and gushy affair is grafted on, with trappings like a silly, sentimental interlude about a field of butterflies.

The other subplot involves a pretty waitress (well-acted by Lolita Davidovich) whom lubricious Jonas, in the best travelling-salesman tradition, wants to add to his conquests . More to the point, the story somehow sticks in Lolita's accident-crippled younger brother. He is convincingly played by Lukas Haas, but the boy's physical/psychological/religious makeup is a murky mess.

On several occasions the film gets good mileage from reversals in the attitudes of Martin and Haas, but when it climaxes with a "real" miracle -- the title's leap of faith -- the movie leaps into a monstrous cop-out of artifice.

It is as though, in its last part, the film got the shakes, worried that its unvarnished cynicism would alienate a part of the audience, and tried to compensate with a three-stage, gloppy and sentimentalized wrap-up: the crippled kid, Nightengale's abrupt change of heart and the end scene, which I won't reveal.

Downplaying much of the glitz, smarm and high tech would have improved the movie and enhanced many of its admittedly clever and occasionally funny parts. Had they let bad enough alone, the film might have been a contender.

The production values are excellent, the photography appropriately slick and the direction by Richard Pearce is good, in keeping with his high standards of "The Long Walk Home," "Country" or the prize-winning "Heartland."

Yet the script, after a pretty good start, keeps bobbing up and down in quality and interest, eventually declining and finishing lamely ( even though someone gets un-lamed).

It is the film debut of the oddly named Janus Cercone who is the wife of the co-producer. Before this she was publicity director for various bands, then a studio musician. Pardon me, Ma'am but your professional past shows in "Leap," and your show keeps slipping.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel