Martin, in a rare non-comedic turn, plays Jonas Nightengale, a cynical con man who makes his living as a traveling revivalist preacher and faith healer. When his convoy breaks down in a depressed small town in Kansas, Nightengale decides to set up his revival there, over the protests of the local sheriff (Neeson), who sees through his act and wants to protect the town. He has little trouble winning over the local population, but starts to find himself affected by their naive faith.
It was adapted into a Broadway musical, which earned unfavorable reviews from critics but still earned a Tony nomination for Best Musical.
Leap of Faith provides examples of:
- Arc Words: "When it is going to rain?"
- Cold Reading: Jonas is an expert at this. It's a big part of his miracle act.
- Celebrity Paradox: Meat Loaf plays one of the support crew for the revival show. In one scene, "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" is clearly heard playing over the radio.
- Establishing Character Moment: Nightengale gets one in the very first scene when his bus is pulled over for speeding, without registration or insurance. He cold-reads the cop's history in the first minute, cuts straight to the heart of his insecurities, gets arrested in the process, and still convinces the guy to let him go without so much as a ticket. The cop even makes a donation to his ministry.
- Fair Cop: The sheriff is played by a young Liam Neeson.
- Fake Faith Healer: The movie is about a cynical fake faith healer who starts to develop sympathy for the people of a small town when he gets stuck there. We get to see some of the behind-the-scenes trickery he uses to make his scams convincing, such as communicating with spies in the audience via hidden radios, and being pretty darn good at Cold Reading.
- Freudian Excuse: We find out that Jonas was abandoned by his mother when he was a child and stood on a street corner for three days waiting for her to return (this is implied to be the source of his disillusionment with God). Jane points out that, given his past, being a quasi-dishonest preacher is hardly the worst thing he could be doing.
- Gospel Choirs Are Just Better: Nightengale's "Angels of Mercy" are a key part of the show.
- Ironic Echo: "What difference does it make as long as you get the job done?"
- Irony: Jonas leaving his Ministry is followed by a thundershower, something the drought-stricken people in the area has been begging him for. His leaving was a miracle, and so a real miracle occurs.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Nightengale consistently claims that he only cares about his own interests, but he's careful to only say things that bring comfort. He seems to be deeply troubled when it's suggested that he might actually be hurting someone, but refuses to admit it.Jane: You really don't care about anything but yourself, do you?Jonas: Oh, Jane, I never pretended I did.
- Little Miss Con Artist: The rare male variant, as Boyd, the wheelchair-bound brother of the woman Jonas is attracted to, reveals that he's been faking being handicapped for years, and offers to join his ministry. It leads to Jonas' Oh, Crap! moment and eventual Heel Realization.Jonas: Look, I run a show here. It's 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 because that's what you've got to watch out for. Not the cops, you can always get around the cops. But the one thing you can never, ever get around is the genuine article, and you, kid, are the genuine article.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: The whole revival show was a deliberate take on televangelist Peter Popoff, who used similar tactics to fake miracles in his show. The controversial TBN faith healer Benny Hinn also influenced Martin's performance as Jonas Nightengale.
- Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Liam Neeson's small-town Kansas sheriff has a distinctly Irish lilt to his voice (though there is an entire trope built around the idea of this, with no small amount of Truth in Television.
- Phony Psychic: A variant on this. Jonas presents himself as a Christian preacher, and claims his readings are miracles. In fact, they're based on a combination of spies, signals, cold reading, placebo effects and a lot of flash and drama.
- Preacher Man: An interesting variation. Jonas is an unapologetic con man, implied to be an atheist who does his act for the money. On the other hand, he's bringing a good show to a remote town and sharing a lot of worthy sentiments, and so feels he isn't hurting anyone (at least at first).
- Refuge in Audacity: See the Establishing Character Moment entry.
- Scam Religion: Nightengale knows perfectly well that he's only a Con Man, but that doesn't stop people from having faith. He justifies it by giving the people want they want: a really good show with music and special effects, for a fraction of the cost of a Broadway production.
- Spiritual Successor: Nightengale acts well as an expy for Professor Harold Hill, aka The Music Man. He's a con man selling feel-good sentiments (some of them music-based) to a small town full of people just trying to believe in goodness and morality. He has to hide his crooked past from officials trying to expose him. He even woos a woman who proves resistant to his charms and has a younger brother with a disability.
- Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist: Will, the local sheriff, spends the whole film trying to protect his community from being taken in by a con man. Even Nightengale seems to respect him.