Playing Jonas Nightengale, a preacher whose god is the con, Steve Martin works up a convincing sweat. Still, it’s hard to stay stoked by a film that begins as a darkly funny inside view of the traveling ministry circuit and then slides precipitously into formula uplift. Jonas and his seen-it-all manager, Jane Larson (Debra Winger), set up their tent — complete with gospel choir and bus-loads of roadies — in a drought-ridden Kansas burg. They use hidden mikes, cameras and computers to trick the hicks. Later, Jane’s conscience is awakened by a dishy sheriff (Liam Neeson), and Jonas sees the light through the trusting eyes of a looker waitress (Lolita Davidovich) and her disabled brother (Lukas Haas).
Before sugar shock sets in, Martin and Winger display an easy, flippant rapport. The gospel music is a joy. And tyro screenwriter Janus Cercone, a former tour publicist for such bands as the Police, shows a keen ear for the rhythms of the road. But the fake sincerity laid on by director Richard Pearce (Country) would take a leap of faith to swallow.