It would be low-hanging fruit to call The Eyes of Tammy Faye Oscar-bait. If we care a whit about accuracy and want to push ourselves as critics to give insightful, authentic reviews that take the specificity of each movie into account, we will observe, instead, that The Eyes of Tammy Faye is what the Hollywood Foreign Press would make if it wanted to award itself a Golden Globe.
Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) is a self-conscious but gregarious yokel from Minnesota who meets aspiring reverend Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), a charismatic former DJ who preaches indulgence over abstinence. In what seems like no time (but really over several decades), Jim and Tammy Faye rocket to stardom and rake in millions from their TV ministry, the PLT Club, before being rocked by scandal. Their relationship goes through periods of intense idolization and neglect before ultimately imploding under widespread fraud on Jim’s part as well as affairs carried out by both.
You don’t have to see the movie to know it runs on star power. Jessica Chastain puts solid work into her performance in these later parts, but earlier on, when Tammy Faye is young and impressionable, she has no dimension. Andrew Garfield’s early performance outshines Chastain’s due to its novelty. He does a great impression of Jim Bakker. But it never transcends a simple impression and quickly gets old while Chastain’s grows in complexity, the character having more life experience, shades of cynicism accenting her general optimism, and a growing moral center that prioritizes outcasts within the religious community, a tendency she developed from being raised in poverty, shunned from the church as a child of divorce.
Though even when the leads do well, the supporting cast proves to be more interesting, specifically Cherry Jones as Tammy Faye’s stern but caring mother and Vincent D’Onofrio as the Reverend Jerry Falwell. Jones and D’Onofrio show restraint where the leads try desperately to inhabit their characters through base theatrics. Jones’s sad, blue eyes, clenched jaw, and gruff voice do wonders for the hard exterior Tammy Faye’s mother puts on, but subtle shades of softness in her delivery and pained semi-smiles during quiet moments of connection with her daughter make her the most layered and interesting character in the film. Meanwhile D’Onofrio has made a career of playing cold, authoritarian figures and sociopathic wackos, so he’s perfect for the part of Rev. Falwell, who, indeed, was a ruthlessly callous, hateful ideologue who wielded a truly unfortunate amount of influence over his lifetime.
If there’s a focus in this review on performances, it’s due to a lack of things to say regarding the direction. Michael Showalter, a talented comedic actor and writer, had ethos when he carried the new-millennium masterpiece of comedic sendups, Wet Hot American Summer, but his absurdist sensibilities don’t contain the melancholy that comedic actors often tap into when turning to drama, either as a director or an actor. This is no Eighth Grade. Showalter has a visual style that uses the bland, bright and sunny aesthetic of feel-good period dramas for scenes of Tammy Faye’s youth (think Hidden Figures) and a prefabricated David O. Russell slickness for the scandalous bits. It’s not an awful movie, although the first half is almost intolerable, written as though the script was copied from a rubric. But the second half contains a handful of well-acted, moving scenes. The strongest scenes detail Tammy Faye’s affair with a sound engineer, one which leads to her being coerced into a humiliating public apology on air, an incident that fully pits us against Garfield’s Bakker and leads to a sense of satisfaction with his downfall. It’s what’s not in the script that makes it somewhat of a failure.
The story of PLT and Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker, née LaValley) has been ripe for the plucking for some time now. We’re living in a divided country where Christian supremacy continues to gnaw at the edges of civil liberties, eroding the separation of church and state and making people filthy rich in the process. We’re also living in a time where you can hoard wealth and actively worsen climate change and economic inequality while at the same time looking heroic by acknowledging gay people are human beings. And let me just say, right off, that this is not a totally charitable take on Tammy Faye, who I can absolutely believe was a genuinely naive, unwilling accomplice to her husband Jim Bakker’s theft of millions from gullible parishioners. But the complex, compassionate, semi-tragic Tammy Faye has no correlation with the performatively liberal spectacle of a movie that uses her story to mount a self-congratulatory spin on a rote biopic formula.
Tammy Faye represents a real conundrum of faith. She was a jubilant Christian who believed in gay rights, which doesn’t square well with Christian doctrine. Of course, there are many Christians who have reconciled the prohibitive parts of the Bible with their progressive ideals in a way that somehow allows them to accept and celebrate homosexuality. But that’s something for them to parse out privately. The movie, however, can and should explore this contradiction for us, but despite ample opportunities to do so, problems of faith are barely interrogated. The movie is happy to dismiss Bakker and Falwell as opportunists, but what if their money fleecing and hate mongering were not merely grotesque mutations of Christian belief, but exceptionally successful applications of the potential for social control that is always latent within Christianity, or any religion, for that matter? Showalter and screenwriter Abe Sylvia let the ambitions of their stars and the phoniness of Hollywood prestige dramas swallow all that could have been, resulting in a movie that feels hollow, inadequate, and off-puttingly simplistic. | Nic Champion