A great biopic should feel like you’re watching history, not being reminded why the film exists in the first place.
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” does the latter, but it’s but one of many cinematic sins. Director Michael Showalter stumbles over ripe satirical material, opting for plot devices a child could spot a country mile away.
Yet Jessica Chastain’s turn as the titular villain deserves all the Oscar buzz, and then some.
Chastain stars as Tammy Faye, a Minnesota teen from a devoutly religious clan. That means stern looks, fire and brimstone banter and little reflecting God’s grace.
It’s Condescension Theater, but at least Showalter lays down his tonal marker early and keeps it consistent.
Tammy Faye meets an awkward student at her Bible college, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), and the two click in that grand rom-com tradition. It’s the only scene in “Tammy Faye” that grants both a measure of humanity at the same time.
Yes, this couple swindled innocents out of millions, but it’s always better to spare some empathy for everyone in a film. Even the charlatans.
Young Jim has dreams of preaching to the masses, and he thinks he can do it while living a life removed from his humble roots. That doesn’t bother Tammy Faye, and when the pair turn their cornball shtick into modest success they couldn’t be happier.
A chance encounter with the Rev. Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio, in a one-note performance a la “Vice“) pushes the pair toward stardom. Only they take the term “Prosperity Gospel” to absurd new levels.
Why? How? “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is all surface, rarely showing why this couple connected with their audiences or how they built their empire. Wouldn’t that make a compelling element? How did this low-rent production con scores of Americans?
Instead, we hear about faith-friendly theme parks and Jim’s hunger to keep those donation phones ringing.
What made Jim tick? How could Tammy Faye, who the movie strains to portray as an innocent and curiously progressive, not grasp the scope of their fraud?
Abe Sylvia’s screenplay provides few answers, and the PTL scandal at the heart of the film screams for just that.
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Chastain endures some of the most unflattering makeup possible, but anyone who caught Tammy Faye’s shtick knows it’s shockingly authentic. It’s how the actress maneuvers around those tarantula-sized eyelashes that anchors the film.
The con woman wanted nothing more than to spread the word of God, and Chastain sells that innocence better than the script deserves. Garfield’s turn is technically precise, but the screenplay rarely offers more than mockable tics and duplicity.
We’re told of Jim’s bisexual urges, for example, in a way that’s neither nuanced nor comic. The same proves true for PTL’s “ties” to the Reagan White House, a cheap shot the filmmakers couldn’t resist. It’s hard not to see the entire film is one big punching down affair, from the crooked couple to anyone naive enough to line their pockets.
The Bakkers deserve every ounce of scorn, and then some. Yet it’s how “Eyes” frames the faithful, from Tammy Faye’s callous Ma (Cherry Jones) to the upper echelon of TV preachers (Falwell, Pat Robertson) and that reminds you why the project exists in its current form.
The film’s production design captures the very worst of late ’70s, early ’80s television, and the commitment to the couple’s tacky tastes is absolute. Yet “Tammy Faye” looks cheap even when it’s trying to capture their opulent surroundings.
Is that an aesthetic choice to hammer home their warped souls?
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” doesn’t know when to end, so we endure a “bonus” 10 or so minutes that should have been sliced for future Blu-ray completists alone.
Tammy Faye Bakker opened her heart to AIDS patients and gay people alike, a brave pose that could have inspired behind-the-scenes friction. Instead, it’s revealed in a few grumpy sound bites.
Her heartfelt traits shouldn’t make the team behind “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” pull so many punches on her behalf.
HiT or Miss: “Eyes of Tammy Faye” boasts a bravura turn by Jessica Chastain, but it’s still a condescending slog through a scandal demanding more scrutiny.