Not only does The Eyes of Tammy Faye assume your familiarity with innovating fraudster televangelists Tammy Faye Messner and Jim Bakker, it assumes your distaste for the former and the reasons for it. She was a much-mocked pop cultural cartoon in her own time (even appearing as a recurring anthropomorphic anxiety in Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County strip), whose garish, camp exterior—and the fact that she was a woman—made her an even easier target than the rest of her peers. Opening on Jessica Chastain’s made-up face in extreme close-up drives the movie’s premise home: An assurance that there’s more under the surface. And yet, the filmmaking is only skin-deep, especially when compared to the 2000 documentary of the same name that it adapts. Director Michael Showalter gives us Tammy Faye as a tragic figure in a sometimes-scolding, sometimes-snide biopic 21 years later—one that only partially respects its subject and, outside of Chastain’s determined efforts, comes across as a facile tale of scandal, sex and selling, selling, selling.
Fittingly for The PTL Club’s faithful-fleecing hosts, the film’s biopic structure sometimes resembles that of a Scorsese-style rise-and-fall gangster movie: Major players are introduced in freeze-frame as drug problems develop and worsen, relationships strain and institutional retribution slowly closes in. If only it had that kind of energy. Instead, it goes through the motions with little for the eye aside from a pastel palette. We see the main couple meet, fall in love, start up their puppets-and-pulpits road show and become so successful that they make a Jesusy theme park. Mostly avoiding the evils of its era—Vincent D’Onofrio’s imposing Jerry Falwell only briefly mentioning his novel sponsorship of the GOP; homophobia as a signifier rather than a deadly reality—The Eyes of Tammy Faye’s real villains are those that don’t treat Tammy Faye and her endless, pure Christian love right. This love actually produces tangible good in the film’s most potent scene, where Tammy Faye interviews a gay man with AIDS on her show despite the prejudice of the men in her hyper-religious circle, and that’s what the movie hangs its hope on.
This is the real Tammy Faye, it tells us, an LGBTQ icon whose drag queen-like persona and rare-for-her-beliefs compassion outweigh…all the other stuff. The ultra-’80s linkage of religious devotion and financial success, ready to sell saved souls for a monthly fee. The empowerment of the American political right to use and abuse Christianity.
The film’s surface feminism, asking why Tammy Faye was always the butt of the jokes, gives way to something perhaps equally sinister: A wholesale claim of ignorance, where the happy-go-lucky performer got taken advantage of just as deeply as those tuning in. It’s a backhanded attempt at a puff piece, stinging all the harder with rib-elbowing jokes that aren’t all that different from what the talk show hosts and sketch comedians leveled back in the day. When you try to establish a coherent ideology within the film, you find it disintegrating before your eyes, summed by the decrepit ichthys decal on Tammy’s post-Jim sedan.
Navigating it all is a performance from Chastain that’s still plenty intriguing, and a not insignificant part of that is the sheer spectacle of watching her manipulate her Uruk-hai levels of makeup and prosthetics. It’s arresting visual work by the artists (that doesn’t extend elsewhere, as Tammy Faye’s parents look exactly the same over the film’s decades) and some hefty physical acting from Chastain—whose squeaky vocal alteration is a compliment rather than a distraction—in service of a questionable retcon. But the star is still able to generate pathos, despite Showalter’s over-the-top staging of incidents designed to show us that she feels lost, betrayed or downright horny. Scored by the infuriatingly ever-present, demonic Tickle Me Elmo giggle sonically summing up the disingenuousness of the televangelist movement, Chastain’s performance is eerily familiar and sometimes striking in its softer moments. When slamming a private Diet Coke or eye-fucking a sexy guitarist, Chastain finds complexity in the infantilized façade. She’s shown time and time again as an instigating sexual force, representative of the personal desires and professional agency denied to her by historical perception. It makes for some compelling moments for Chastain and some contradictory moments for what the film is actually trying to say about its title character.
Combine that with the fact that, outside of Chastain, the performances are as thin as the characters—especially Andrew Garfield’s Jim, whose role just involves crying and apologizing from Genesis 1:1 forward—and the dull parable simply isn’t deserving of her efforts. The Eyes of Tammy Faye’s attempt to explain a misunderstood public figure is mired in a confused tone that gets distracted by the same commercialization and mockery it aims to critique. The weary and plodding story putters along the redemption arc’s curve, losing faith even in itself along the way.
Director: Michael Showalter
Writer: Abe Sylvia
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio
Release Date: September 17, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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