Vermin on the Mount

Can evangelists be parodied? It's doubtful. The most full-throated parody withers in the face of reality. When Alec Baldwin played the young Jimmy Swaggart, cousin and close friend of the young Jerry Lee Lewis, in Great Balls of Fire!, he was pallid. If I'd been the great, dynamic performer Swaggart, I'd have been offended. Even the Reverend Ray Porter, the skirt-chasing televangelist played by Tim Curry in the marvelous, criminally neglected satire Pass The Ammo!, isn't realistically improbable. Put him on TV, with tax-exempt status and an 800 number, and I bet he'd make money.

Yet in Leap of Faith, Steve Martin plays the traveling tent-revival preacher Jonas Nightengale self-consciously. It's one of the more reserved performances he's given, in spite of all the Elvis-like wiggling and flashy little dance steps he does in the preaching scenes. The idea of Martin as a phony Bible-thumper must initially have sounded great to the producers, but it has turned out to be a deadly bit of miscasting. We never buy him for a minute. He's a phony phony Bible-thumper.

The trouble is that Martin doesn't think of Leap of Faith as a parody but as a realistic comedy/drama. So he's perversely trying not to be too funny or ludicrous, as if overplaying were possible. Jonas's revival meeting, which is of the wheelchair-discarding variety, is much more elaborate than the ones I've seen on TV -- the staging is more lavish than a regional production of Phantom of the Opera. Yet as the center of all this spectacle, Martin is a dead spot. It's as if the role of the Phantom is being played by a half-hearted lounge singer.

The deeper trouble, really, is that Martin thought this script, by Janus Cercone, was worth his time. If his performance was topnotch, Leap of Faith would certainly be a lot more entertaining, but it would still be a shoddy, saccharine warming-over of ideas from The Rainmaker, Elmer Gantry, and a few other sources. It would still trash a couple of other fine actors, Debra Winger as Martin's aide-de-camp and Liam Neeson as a fretting small-town sheriff. The scenes of the developing romance between these two are marvels of bad writing.

With a subtlety characteristic of the whole project, the dustbowl town that Neeson is sworn to protect and serve is called Rustwater. One of the trucks in Jonas's roadshow breaks down, and he and his entourage (who out of the tent behave exactly like a rock band on tour) are stuck in Rustwater for a few days, so they decide, over the open disapproval of Neeson, to play the town. You guessed it, Rustwater's corn crop is in desperate need of rain, but Cercone doesn't stop there -- there's also a pretty but life-battered diner waitress (Lolita Davidovitch) whom Jonas takes a shine to, and her crippled kid brother (Lukas Haas), who quickly decides that Jonas can heal him. The climax this builds toward wobbles with pathetic indecision between cynicism and Spielbergishness.

The director, Richard Pearce, uses his documentarian's eye for naturalistic detail to liven things up as best he can, catching occasional nice reaction shots in the revival crowds. And the film contains quite a lot of terrific gospel music (the soundtrack album would be a far better investment than a ticket). But even these bright points, though extremely welcome, emphasize the falseness of Leap of Faith. Jonas's jokes and music are too hip to be a hit on the circuit he's playing. The filmmakers obviously feared that presenting him closer to the smarmy truth would make him repellent, and they didn't want that.

What really is repellent about Leap of Faith is the invitation the film gives us to laugh with Jonas and his crew at the flock they're fleecing. It is especially so in light of the contradictory but equally revolting outrage, offered through the big daddy sheriff, at this same fleecing. Of course evangelists are frauds, but they aren't worth the bile that mainstream people sometimes direct at them (the bile should be reserved for the fanatics who aren't frauds -- the ones who mean it).

It's condescending to worry on behalf of most of the people who give money to these guys. Remember the grifter's maxim that you can't cheat an honest person. Overpriced theologies are bought by people shopping for convenience, not quality. And who's to say they are being cheated? When Jonas defends himself against the charge of being a manipulator by saying "manipulators are sneaky; I'm obvious," he's got a point. Maybe the flock takes sending a few bucks to their favorite preacher no more seriously than they'd take joining a rock star's fan club. If they don't -- if they honestly think that helping these charlatans buy their air time will get them a job, or better health, or better living quarters in the Hereafter -- it just means they haven't thought about it hard enough.

Directed by Richard Pearce; with Steve Martin, Debra Winger, Liam Neeson, and Lolita Davidovich.



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