The Eyes of Tammy Faye Review

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)

Oscar Predictions: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

The Best Actress race just got more interesting and we can thank Jessica Chastain for that. Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye has emerged from the Toronto Film Festival. While the reviews for the film are mixed, Chastain’s performance as Tammy Faye Bakker is drawing raves.

Based on a 2000 documentary, this dramatized bio of the extreme makeup wearing televangelist and her husband Jim (Andrew Garfield) has never been pegged as much of a Best Picture contender. The critical reaction confirms that. Mr. Garfield is getting some solid notices. I question whether he gains traction in the acting derby. He’ll have another shot in 2021 with the as yet unseen Tick, Tick… Boom! If that one doesn’t materialize, Searchlight could push him in supporting.

Chastain is another story with her viability. She appears firmly in line for her third nomination. The first was in 2011 in supporting for The Help. Her second came the next year in lead for Zero Dark Thirty. Not only does she seem headed for Oscar recognition, she could be a threat to win. In other words, we may not want to crown Kristen Stewart (Spencer) the victor yet.

Makeup and Hairstyling is another obvious race where this could get in. Perhaps the gaudy 80s fashion will be noticed for Costume Design.

Bottom line: a couple of weeks back, I boldly declared that you could write Kristen Stewart’s Best Actress inclusion in pen. Here we go again for the second pronouncement… I think you can do the same with Chastain. My Oscar Prediction posts for the films of 2021 will continue…

Oscar Watch: The Lovebirds

In 2017, comedian Kumail Nanjiani had a breakout hit with The Big Sick, a dramedy based on his real life experiences with his wife. An unexpected box office success, the pic even managed buzz for a Best Picture nomination and for Holly Hunter in Supporting Actress. Neither nod materialized and the film’s sole nomination was for its Original Screenplay.

The rom com/murder mystery The Lovebirds teams Nanjiani with his Sick director Michael Showalter once again. It’s out on Netflix today after Paramount moved it to streaming service from an April theatrical date due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the pic is generating fairly decent reviews (66% on Rotten Tomatoes) and praise for the chemistry between leads Nanjiani and Issa Rae, the critical reaction doesn’t approach that of Sick (with its 98% Tomato meter). Bottom line: don’t expect the Lovebirds to gather any passion to fly before the radar screen of awards voters. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

The Oscars Go Streaming

The COVID-19 pandemic has obviously changed the operation of movie theaters for the past two months and that looks to continue into the foreseeable future in many states across the nation. For someone who has a blog that focuses on a lot on Oscar forecasting, this has raised numerous questions. The primary one is: could there really be an Oscar telecast for 2020 pictures next year if there’s little product being released? And I certainly don’t think Sonic the Hedgehog or Birds of Prey will sweep the ceremony in February 2021.

A significant part of the answer to that question was revealed today. The Academy, after an internal Zoom conference, announced that streaming and VOD product will indeed be eligible for Oscar consideration. You may ask – weren’t Netflix and other streamers already being nominated? After all, 2019 saw Best Picture and/or acting nods for The Irishman, Marriage Story, and The Two Popes. Well, not really. The previous rule was that each streaming entry had to screen in Los Angeles for a one week awards qualifying run. That rule (at least for 2020) has been abolished.

So what does that mean? The uncertainty surrounding the opening of theaters could mean a lot more features hitting Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and any other VOD platforms. We have witnessed this already with Trolls World Tour landing on small screens when it was supposed to hit multiplexes. That’s not all. Just yesterday, Judd Apatow’s latest comedy King of Staten Island starring Pete Davidson skipped its theatrical run and opted for a June VOD date. The Lovebirds, which reunites Kumail Nanjiani with his The Big Sick director Michael Showalter, arrives May 22 on Netflix. The Seth Rogen comedy An American Pickle will now premiere on HBO Max.

With today’s announcement, I suspect we could see many Oscar contenders (especially lower budget ones) make the streaming move. And with the uncertainty regarding film festivals like Cannes, Venice, Toronto, and Telluride (typically the launching pads for such content), this could be the easiest way to get such features to the masses around the same time frame.

My Oscar coverage, when it’s available, will continue here!

The Coronavirus and The Movies

Let me start by stating the obvious – with COVID-19 or the Coronavirus dominating the worldwide news cycle, its impact on the moviegoing public is very far from the most important story. However, this is a blog focused on the world of film and especially the box office.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has touched the cinematic universe this week and beyond. The major news in this space began a couple of days back when the latest James Bond pic No Time to Die was delayed from April 10th until November. Producers made no secret that Coronavirus was the reason. For a tentpole release of this stature to get delayed opens up the real possibility of others that could follow. On a smaller scale, the Dave Bautista comedy My Spy was pushed from next Friday to mid April.

News continued yesterday as the South by Southwest Festival in Austin was canceled. Scheduled to begin on March 16, SXSW serves as a launching pad for dozens of features and documentaries. In 2020, this included such high profile titles as David Lowery’s The Green Knight, Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island with Pete Davidson, and Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick follow-up The Lovebirds starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae.

We will see what the future brings as outside factors are certainly influencing how studios and festival organizers make decisions.

2017: The Year of Kumail Nanjiani

It was early in 2017 when The Big Sick started garnering buzz from its screening at the Sundance Film Festival. Nearly one year later, the unique rom com was a smashing box office success and established its star/co-writer as a fresh and exciting new voice on the big screen.

Kumail Nanjiani was best known for his role on HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and stand-up. He had appeared in numerous supporting roles in comedies such as Central Intelligence and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, but The Big Sick was something else entirely.

The Pakistani born performer penned the screenplay with wife Emily V. Gordon. Loosely based on their relationship and their dealings with her illness and cultural issues, the pic resonated with critics and audiences. The reported $5 million production took in $43 million stateside with a sizzling 98% Rotten Tomatoes score. Sick could soon attract Oscar attention, especially for Best Original Screenplay and Holly Hunter in Supporting Actress.

For Nanjiani, the year began with a festival screening that turned his movie into an audience favorite throughout the year. 2017 ends with his many new fans eager to see his next move.

The Big Sick Movie Review

The Big Sick is a pleasing combination of a romantic comedy that feels one part wholly original as it comes from the real life experiences of stand-up Kumail Nanjiani, essentially playing himself. The other part is not without imperfections and that could be called the Judd Apatow part, who produced it. Like Apatow’s best work, there’s plenty of heart, laughs, and observations about the comedy scene. Like even in his best work (and certainly his most middling pictures), it’s a bit too long and occasionally veers into semi-stale territory.

That said, Nanjiani’s creation takes you out of typical genre territory for most of its two-hour running time. Sick was written by its star and wife Emily V. Gordon and it takes a page out of their true life experiences. Pakistani comic Kumail Nanjiani portrays Pakistani comic Kumail Nanjiani, who’s struggling to make ends meet doing night gigs in Chicago while also driving an Uber. One night he’s pleasantly heckled on stage by Emily (Zoe Kazan) and the two hit it off post show. A one-night stand that transpires over several nights occurs – in the sense that they keep saying it’s the last one-night stand. She’s busy in grad school, he’s doing his career thing. Before they know it, they realize they’re in some sort of feeling resembling love yet they dare not say it.

Kumail can’t tell his family of his new whatever he and Emily call it. His background demands that he enter an arranged marriage with a girl of Pakistani ethnicity and his parents (especially Mom) bring a slew of such women to the dinner table every time Kumail comes to dinner. It’s this complication that soon ends the relationship.

The title comes into play when Emily is rushed to the hospital and put into a medically induced coma. Kumail is informed and he soon meets Emily’s folks (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). Their knowledge of their daughter’s former relationship is the opposite of Kumail’s parents. They know everything and aren’t exactly warm to the idea of Kumail hanging around the ICU.

The Big Sick, more often than not, avoids many typical rom com cliches. Some of this is due to one of the leads not being available for a solid portion of the proceedings. This allows Kumail and Emily’s parents to develop a fascinating dynamic. Veteran performers Hunter and Romano make the best of their parts and their marriage is an interesting one in itself. The screenplay is refreshingly honest in a way that few in the genre manage to be. Kumail is far from perfect in how he handles situations, but not in an overly broad silly way. He’s trying and it’s not easy to balance his cultural leanings and his feelings for Emily. Kazan is charming and vulnerable as Emily, as she slowly realizes the difficulties involved with dating Kumail.

We get a little bit of exploring the stand-up comedy scene as Kumail is trying to land a sought after spot at the Montreal Comedy Festival. There’s nothing terribly new about that aspect of the script (Apatow covered it well in Funny People), but Nanjiani is certainly familiar with it. And that’s what really puts The Big Sick in satisfying territory. Nanjiani and his spouse write what they know – each other. And you root for them to work it all out.

*** (out of four)