`Leap of Faith' is Leap for Martin

The film walks fine line of satirizing evangelism without belittling values

STEVE MARTIN has made some bold choices in his movie career, and his latest is one of these. "Leap of Faith" tells the story of a phony evangelist who earns his living by gulling believers with false shows of religious faith. Although it turns out to be far less irreverent than it seems at the start, it could be a risky vehicle for Mr. Martin if it's attacked by reviewers who see antireligious attitudes lurking in every corner of Hollywood today.

The main character's name is Jonas, and as he travels through the South with a caravan of buses - almost a wry parody of the bus entourages that Bill Clinton used during the election campaign - he sees every Christian as just another mark to be flattered, fleeced, and forgotten.

He's a conjurer, a crook, and a con artist down to his bones. The movie takes mischievous pleasure in showing both the overt glitziness and the covert deceptiveness of the sleazy carnival act he stages with his shills and accomplices. Yet the story's goal isn't to belittle religious values. Rather, it's to show how even this unsavory character finds eventual redemption in the same religious atmosphere he's done his best to mock and exploit.

The arrival of "Leap of Faith" reintroduces the question of whether the American film industry only deals with religion when scorn or criticism is its goal. A handful of reviewers have recently been making this charge, but I think it overlooks a lot of evidence to the contrary.

True, the movie business is geared more to escapist entertainment than to thoughtful enlightenment, and religious faith is generally overlooked in this environment. Still, pictures as different as Spike Lee's epic "Malcolm X" and Robert Redford's picturesque "A River Runs Through It" are treating religion with genuine interest and respect at this very moment, and they certainly aren't unique in recent years. Even films that satirize aspects of religion usually aim their barbs at the excesses of instituti ons rather than the beliefs of spiritually minded people.

"Leap of Faith" falls into this category. During much of the story, Jonas is modeled on real-life religious fakers (on television as well as the revival-tent circuit) who have no concern with religion beyond the contributions they rake in with their collection buckets and 800 numbers.

At the end of the picture, though, he seems patterned after the eccentric hero of "Wise Blood," the brilliant Flannery O'Connor novel that was turned into a middling-good John Huston movie a dozen years ago. Like him, Jonas thinks of himself as too clever and cynical for religious faith - but finds that God's message is determined to catch and uplift him, no matter how hard he tries to run in the opposite direction.

This is quite an idea to find in a Steve Martin comedy-drama, and while it hardly amounts to sophisticated theology, it has a refreshing tang.

The character of Jonas gives Martin a few opportunities for the kind of physical comedy he handled so well in "All of Me" a few years back, and he's well supported by Debra Winger as Jonas's partner in crime. Lolita Davidovich and Liam Neeson also turn in capable performances.

The film was directed by Richard Pearce, whose approach is rather flashy and Hollywoodish at times, losing the freshness of his film "Heartland," made when he was working outside the big-studio mainstream. He was a more interesting artist when his ambitions were more modest, but he hasn't abandoned his interest in offbeat subjects and regional flavors. "Leap of Faith" indicates that he's still a filmmaker to watch.

"Leap of Faith" is rated PG-13 for vulgar language. It also contains some talk about illness, sex, and other material that may not be considered appropriate for children.

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