Jessica Chastain is so fabulous in Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye that it’s tempting to forgive how much of a standard biopic it really is. Under layers of foundation, eye shadow, and drawn on lips, the actress playing televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker is always fascinating to witness. The film’s foundation is shakier with an over reliance on montages and a frequent unwillingness to truly peel away the layers of its subjects.
We meet Tammy when she finds the Holy Spirit as a poor young girl in the late 1950s. Her cheerful attitude confounds her grounded in realism mother (Cherry Jones), who’s considered an outcast due to a divorce. By the mid 60s, our devoted Christian soldier meets Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) in college. He’s a different kind of aspiring pastor – not afraid to preach the gospel of fun and materialism. Tammy is his perfect match in building an eventual empire through the PTL Network (at one time the fourth most watched channel on TV).
Their union and the fidelity of their followers doesn’t always circle with the more square Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), who Jim looks up to but his wife eyes with caution. Speaking of fidelity, it comes into focus as the couple become more famous. Tammy’s attraction to her music producer (Mark Wystrach) is nearly requited while Jim’s own wandering eye is hinted at in different ways. Their relationship gets the most screen time in Abe Sylvia’s screenplay (based on a 2000 documentary of the same name). It’s at the expense of other areas of Tammy Faye’s life that are glossed over.
A key one is the script’s general resistance to delving into what caused the Bakkers fall from grace (dubbed Pearlygate for them and other clergy by the late 80s). Eyes definitely sees Tammy Faye as a sympathetic figure and in many respects she was. Her compassion for AIDS patients was at a period when that came with great risk to the business. The complicated alliance with Jim is presented as one of blind faith for Tammy. Garfield succeeds in making his character a multifaceted one. He’s neither portrayed as a greedy monster or a misunderstood prophet. The actor deserves the lion’s share of credit over the words written for him.
That certainly holds true for Chastain. From her squeaky Minnesota accent (she sounds like Betty Boop crossed with Marge from Fargo) to her ever present Diet Coke (it’s her only addiction until pills come into play), this could have been played for parody. Chastain is far too talented a performer for that. She alone, along with a few showdowns with her deep in debt hubby, makes Eyes highly watchable. However, it never genuinely gets behind the makeup with its conventional storytelling.
**1/2 (out of four)