In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Jessica Chastain explained her desire to tackle the titular role of Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye: “The media has done an injustice (to her) that could be interesting to correct. People were more interested in how much mascara she was wearing than what she was actually saying.” However, the film itself opens with a close-up shot of Bakker getting her makeup done and dialogue pointing out her permanent eyelashes and lip liner. It ends in an even gaudier fashion. Somewhere in the middle, it tries to stir up empathy, and it shows hints of reaching greatness, but it ultimately falls flat.
Based on the 2000 documentary of the same name, the film tells the story of Tammy Faye Bakker — the wife and professional partner of televangelist titan Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) — through tired biopic tropes: flashbacks to childhood; montages of successes and scandals; Oscar-bait scenes of confrontation.
Tammy Faye’s faith never feels completely sincere. As a young girl (played by Chandler Head), she seems to feign faith for the approval of her mother (Cherry Jones) and the local church that shuns her for being a child of divorce. In Bible college, Jim’s promise of prosperity appeals to her more than anything else. When they get married and preach the word of God on television, it’s fame that seduces Tammy Faye.
The film works best when it focuses on the Bakkers confusing Christianity with the capitalist American dream. One of the funniest scenes finds Tammy Faye promoting a penis pump in a segment of a TV show that doesn’t remotely resemble a religious program.
Director Michael Showalter and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis take a bird’s-eye view of the Bakkers’ flashy studios and home furnishings, emphasizing their vastness and emptiness through wide shots.
As the Bakkers’ palatial mansion grows cold, so does Tammy Faye. During a scene in which Jim struggles to sell someone on investing in a Christian water park, she sneakily saunters over, turns on her own waterworks and closes the deal through crocodile tears. “You’re welcome,” she later says to Jim in a sinister tone.
Kudos to screenwriter Abe Sylvia and Chastain (who also produced the film) for showing Tammy Faye’s dark side and how she used religion for manipulative purposes. If only the film better balanced its criticism and satire with empathy and admiration for her. Beyond the scene in which Tammy Faye interviews a gay, HIV-positive minister, the film doesn’t make much effort to highlight her positive impact. Even that scene is hijacked by a backstage moment in which fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) huffs and puffs about Jim needing to “get her under control.”
While Chastain delivers a complex, commanding performance, everything around her feels underdeveloped, especially the portrayal of Jim. Perhaps it’s because the story is told through Tammy Faye’s lovestruck point of view, but we never really see Jim as anything more than a man in over his head. The film troublingly glosses over the rape allegations against him and how he essentially used Tammy Faye as a pawn. Regardless, Garfield does the best with the little he’s given. His boyish quality is effective in accentuating both Bakker’s charm and his childlike resistance to facing the consequences of his actions.
Like the Bakkers themselves, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is irresistibly engaging but ultimately a bit cold beneath its sunny surface.