Release Date: December 15th, 1992 (Dallas premiere)
Directed by: Richard Pearce
Written by: Janus Cercone
Music by: Cliff Eidelman
Cast: Steve Martin, Debra Winger, Lolita Davidovich, Liam Neeson, Lukas Haas, Meat Loaf, Philip Seymour Hoffman, M. C. Gainey, Delores Hall, Troy Evans
Paramount Pictures, 108 Minutes, 95 Minutes (Ontario cut)
“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.” – Jonas
I saw this movie once a really long time ago but I really liked it and had been meaning to revisit it at some point. It’s just one of those films that slipped down the memory hole. But when I reviewed My Blue Heaven, I discovered that I hadn’t yet reviewed any of Steve Martin’s work, which was surprising due to how much I love the guy. So when I went down the list of his films, this one immediately popped out as one I needed to revisit as soon as possible.
I’m really glad that I did, as it’s held up pretty well and I’m honestly not sure why this isn’t considered one of Steve Martin’s best from the general critical consensus.
This is a film that really shows Martin’s dramatic range while still allowing him to be comedic. But this is a more serious picture than his most popular ones. Just being a few years removed from Parenthood, however, Martin was able to kind of build off of that film’s more serious tone and deliver another well-balanced performance that is both campy and real.
In this, he plays a professional conman that is running around America as a faith healer. He tries to justify his massive con by pointing out that his work, despite its dishonesty, does in fact help people because he makes them believe it. But ultimately, the story and the people he encounters on this stop of his journey, make him see himself and his work differently.
Martin is surrounded by a solid, very capable cast made up of Debra Winger, Liam Neeson, M. C. Gainey, Meat Loaf, a very young Philip Seymour Hoffman and an even younger Lukas Haas. But everyone in this film brings it. Plus, seeing the relationship blossom between Neeson’s Sheriff character, who wants to expose Martin’s preacher as a fraud, and Debra Winger, Martin’s trusted assistant, is really well orchestrated and executed.
The film lets you know that Steve Martin’s Jonas Nightingale is a pretty scummy guy from the get go but it still allows him to win you over and lure you in regardless of how he capitalizes off of very poor people’s naivety. You still fall for the guy even knowing the con and once you actually get to know him, you understand that his life has been pretty shitty too. It doesn’t excuse his poor life decisions but it allows you to understand where they came from and hope that he somehow finds a better path because he does touch people and could actually do some good in the world.
In its simplest form, this is a movie about redemption and I love redemption stories. It’s far from the greatest redemption story ever told but it is still a very enjoyable one that features a complex and charismatic character that you kind of want to root for in spite of his selfish, predatory nature.
Pairs well with: other Steve Martin comedies with a high emphasis on drama.