Like its subject, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a bit difficult to entirely figure out. It’s a biopic based on a documentary that came out over 20 years ago, which does generate a new wave of sympathy for the late Tammy Faye Bakker but seems more than a little late to the party in doing so. Neither hagiography nor hatchet job, the film also can’t be described as a warts and all account of how she and husband Jim Bakker rose to prominence and fell from grace during the 1970s and 1980s. At times, the movie threatens to spin out of control with montages that condense far too much information but with a 126-minute runtime, it ultimately doesn’t seem to be in too much of a rush either. The one thing that’s clear is that Jessica Chastain puts everything she has into the lead role and gives the project the sense of purpose that it needs.
After a brief prologue set in the mid-90s, we travel back to mid-50s Minnesota, where Tammy Faye was raised to be God-fearing and proper by her stern mother (Cherry Jones). This upbringing later leads her to North Central Bible College in 1960, where she meets the handsome and charismatic Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). Smitten with one another, they get hitched and drop out of school to spread the word of the Lord on the road, eventually crossing paths with televangelist Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds). Working under him at his Christian Broadcasting Network, the Bakkers form their own channel called PTL and reign supreme in the televangelist market until sexual misconduct and fraud allegations bring their operation to a halt.
Director Michael Showalter made quite an impression with his excellent directorial debut The Big Sick in 2017 but his two films since then don’t quite transcend their respective genres. The direct-to-Netflix The Lovebirds was a solid base hit of a romantic comedy and The Eyes of Tammy Faye fits the same descriptor in biopic form. It hits many of the familiar beats, from early childhood to young love, from the soaring heights of success to the agonizing depths of failure. The overall shape of this narrative is nothing you haven’t seen a thousand times before and it’s a bit of a disappointment that Showalter doesn’t try a bit harder to shake things up. Aside from a few match cuts that generate some of the film’s best punchlines, it’s hard to see his artistry come through in the way the story is told.
Chastain, on the other hand, has an abundance of personality and perspective that come through in yet another terrific performance in her already laudable career. Tammy Faye Bakker was a larger than life figure and while Chastain wisely embraces the traits that the public knew best, she goes deeper to suggest desires and dreams that the cameras never captured. While it takes a bit of time for Jim to reveal his true colors as a cheat and a huckster, Tammy Faye ultimately comes across as a decent person whose enormous need for love and attention led to unprecedented audience sizes. I saw a good bit of Dolly Parton in Chastain’s performance, someone who also feels deeply, sings proudly and knows how to keep the public’s attention through the years.
A through line of the movie is Tammy Faye’s conversations with God throughout her life, growing more urgent and desperate the more dire her circumstances become. Prayer isn’t depicted very often in mainstream film, just as religion is typically relegated to faith-based movies that are released only to specific markets. The crisis of faith depicted in The Eyes of Tammy Faye isn’t the driving force of the plot but it’s a revealing track of character development that candidly reflects how beliefs can be shaken in trying times. When you strip away the layers of gaudy and gooey storytelling, there’s a more simple and moving story to be told that sadly feels the need to be done up to appeal to audiences.
Score – 3/5
More new movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Dear Evan Hansen, a musical starring Ben Platt and Amy Adams about a high school senior’s journey of self-discovery and acceptance following the suicide of a fellow classmate.
Streaming on Netflix is The Starling, a dramedy starring Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd about a married couple who suffer a hardship and find their way through it with the help of a bird nesting in their backyard.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is Birds of Paradise, a drama starring Kristine Froseth and Diana Silvers about two ballet dancers who find their friendship tested when they compete for a contract to join an elite academy in Paris.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup