Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield in ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’: Film Review | TIFF 2021

Michael Showalter directs this dramatic feature adapted from the 2000 documentary about the rise and fall of the televangelist, her husband and their multimillion-dollar empire.

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s juicy 2000 documentary, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, did an excellent job of capturing the singular peculiarity of a camp icon of the 1980s, raising questions as to what degree televangelical empress Tammy Faye Bakker was aware of the irregularities that led to her husband Jim’s conviction and imprisonment on fraud charges. Michael Showalter’s grating, garish dramatized adaptation adds little to that account, beyond providing a gaudy showcase for Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield’s cartoonish performances. Impersonations in search of nuance, they fail to humanize these controversial figures, seldom going as deep as their makeup.

Showalter’s The Big Sick remains an exemplary balancing act of comedy with sentiment, sincerity with compassion, thanks in no small part to the highly personal investment of star Kumail Nanjiani and writer Emily V. Gordon, whose complicated romance the movie lightly fictionalizes. But the director demonstrates here that he’s only as good as his material, struggling to milk an ounce of truth out of a pedestrian screenplay by TV writer Abe Sylvia (Nurse Jackie, Dead to Me). Connoisseurs of performance gimmickry might be drawn to the Searchlight release, with its layers of prosthetic and digital disguise. But anyone requiring a fresh point of view or a reason to care should look elsewhere.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

The Bottom Line

A grotesque clown show.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Release date: Friday, Sept. 17
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio, Fredric Lehne, Gabriel Olds, Louis Cancelmi
Director: Michael Showalter
Screenwriter: Abe Sylvia

Rated PG-13,
2 hours 6 minutes

What’s most galling about The Eyes of Tammy Faye is the opportunity it squanders to go back to the Reagan-era roots and really take a long, hard look at how the evangelical right attained such a political stranglehold on America. There’s a brief scene toward the end in which Christian conservative heavyweight Jerry Falwell Sr. (Vincent D’Onofrio) pressures the Bakkers to get on board with the coalition, or “keep the evangelicals in the tent,” as he puts it, while stressing the importance of a Republican White House to the movement, and vice versa. But there’s no teeth in the movie’s political observations.

To the degree that politics does factor, it’s largely in service of Tammy Faye’s bizarre beatification. To be fair, this portrait does celebrate an independent-minded woman determined to do things her own way. She refuses to remain demurely compliant, pulling up a chair to weigh in when Jim gets a seat at the table with Falwell and the era’s other big evangelical macher, Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds). And her insistence that God’s love does not discriminate, calling for acceptance of the LGBTQ community and conducting an emotional TV interview with a gay pastor with AIDS (Randy Havens), puts her at odds with intolerant hard-liners.

It’s refreshing when Tammy Faye bristles at being told of God’s fight against “the liberal agenda, the homosexual agenda, the feminist agenda,” and responds with a reminder that America is their country too. She refuses to get into the business of deciding who’s going to hell.

But in other ways, the movie characterizes Tammy Faye as a borderline simpleton, with her awkward laugh punctuating every sentence and her relentlessly chirpy, happy-clappy “God loves you!” affirmations even when the righteousness of the evangelical movement is being questioned. Chastain does her best, but although she makes Tammy Faye vulnerable, she can’t make her interesting. At least not for more than a few minutes at a time. If Sylvia’s script had ever pulled back long enough to convey a sense of the Bakkers examining the ethical ambiguities and contradictions of what they were doing, that might not have been the case.

Rather than first accessing the title character as a human being, the film opens by going straight to the freakazoid physical appearance. Tammy Faye sits in a TV studio makeup chair in larger-than-life close-up and informs the unseen person tasked with getting her camera-ready that the lashes and lips absolutely never come off. So the first impression of her, which never really evolves, is that she’s a RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant with a Bible instead of a sense of irony.

Then, right on conventional cue, the action shifts back to her early-’50s childhood in International Falls, Minnesota. The eldest of eight children, Tammy Faye (Chandler Head) was the only one born during the first marriage of her stern mother, Rachel (Cherry Jones, who deserves better), making her the dark stain of divorce personified. In fact, Rachel was allowed back into the Pentecostal Church only because she could play piano. She definitely doesn’t want Tammy Faye showing up during services to remind folks of that past disgrace, though show up she does, defiantly marching in and launching into a “speaking in tongues” miracle moment with her first sip of sacramental wine.

Chastain steps in as Tammy Faye in 1960, when she meets fellow student Jim at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. His fervor instantly strikes a chord with her, notably his dismissal of that old “blessed be the poor” nonsense in favor of Christ wanting eternal wealth for his crusaders. To a young woman who eventually acquires more expensive furs than anyone living in the South could ever possibly need, that sure sounds good. Plus, she’s so busy beaming she barely seems to mind when a religious instructor casually calls her a harlot because of her industrial-strength makeup.

The story proceeds with all the stylistic invention of a Wikipedia entry. Tammy Faye and Jim marry, which is against North Central rules, forcing them to drop out. They start traveling the evangelical circuit, where Jim envisions making enough money to start their own church. His habitual overspending is evident early on, however, when his failure to make payments on a pricey convertible leaves them stranded.

But — hallelujah! — their hotel-room neighbor is a fan of Jim’s folksy sermons and Tammy Faye’s cutesy puppet shows; he happens to work on Robertson’s production team at the Christian Broadcasting Network, giving the Bakkers a foot in the door of evangelical TV. Like a Bible-thumping Eve Harrington, Jim soon manipulates Pat into giving him his own late night show, and the still-running 700 Club is born.

The Bakkers enjoy a meteoric rise over the next five years, establishing the Praise the Lord (PTL) Network and studios in North Carolina, investing in their own satellite and eventually launching plans for a Christian theme park called Heritage USA.

But there’s trouble in paradise when Jim becomes too caught up in growing the business to give Tammy Faye the attention she needs. Watching him wrestle on the floor with their business manager, Richard Fletcher (Louis Cancelmi), his desire barely suppressed, doesn’t do much to settle her nerves either. (Garfield’s stereotypically closet-queeny mannerisms are hard to take.)

All the flashy jewels and mink jackets in the world are no substitute for the love of her man, so Tammy Faye starts popping pills, has an on-air meltdown and falls briefly into the arms of a soulful Nashville music producer with a Kenny Loggins vibe (Mark Wystrach), a transgression for which Jim makes her repent on live TV. And while creditors close in, the secular press is publishing negative reports about the Bakkers appropriating tax-exempt church funds for their personal use.

OK, all this really happened, so the filmmakers can’t be faulted for stretching credibility. But it’s told with an unwavering earnestness that veers frequently into sudsy melodrama and, elsewhere, goofy pantomime. With tacky wigs. The inevitable downfall of the Bakkers — with D’Onofrio’s opportunistic Falwell offering help only to sell Jim out and seize control of PTL — might perhaps surprise one or two people who remain blind to the hypocrisies of the evangelical movement and are unfamiliar with the couple’s spectacular implosion. But others are more likely to wonder what we’re meant to have learned from two plodding hours in their irritating company.

Chastain throwing herself into Tammy Faye’s disco period in a glitzy getup might be good for a GIF or two. But the movie, with its numbing overload of pastels and prayer, is too tonally uncertain to yield any fun. It’s a depressing window into the worst excesses of faith racketeering that has little to offer in the way of commentary.

The leads certainly commit to their roles, to the extent that both Tammy Faye and Jim seem to have brainwashed even themselves into believing their morality is unimpeachable. But not for a second did I feel any emotional connection to these characters; the only “Praise Jesus!” moment was when the end credits finally rolled.

Full credits

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Production companies: Freckle Films, Madison Wells Studios
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio, Fredric Lehne, Gabriel Olds, Louis Cancelmi, Sam Jaeger, Mark Wystrach, Randy Havens, Chandler Head
Director: Michael Showalter
Screenwriter: Abe Sylvia
Based on the documentary by Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato
Producers: Jessica Chastain, Kelly Carmichael, Rachel Shane, Gigi Pritzker
Executive producers: Jenny Hinkey, Meredith Milton, Jordana Mollick, Adrian Alperovich, Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato
Director of photography: Michael Gioulakis
Production designer: Laura Fox
Costume designer: Mitchell Travers
Editors: Mary Jo Markey, Andrew Weisblum
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Casting: Avy Kaufman

Rated PG-13, 2 hours 6 minutes