The biopic on the religious icon of Tammy Faye feels like a lot less than the superior documentary of the same name. It doesn’t help that the opening credits reference the documentary as well. Upon leaving the screening, the praise I heard was that the film humanized Tammy. Sure, but so did the documentary. While this film still does that, it filters that message through mixed performances and some off-beat choices for dark humor.
Jessica Chastain at least gives a great performance in the titular role. She doesn’t quite nail the look or the voice but she does bring her own strong take. She gives Tammy’s journey from bible school eccentric to washed-up televangelist a lot of emotional heft. Even if her makeup is exaggerated, Chastain’s performance tries to give the character some heart while she tries to ignore her troubling path. Somehow, this survives the awkward direction which begs the audience to laugh at her when she overdoses on pills.
It’s easy to feel bad for Tammy considering how she was duped by Jim Bakker, played with a big stupid grin by Andrew Garfield. Jim has dreams of spreading engaging sermons that go a little bolder. He starts with a traveling Christian show of puppet antics and that soon evolves into a television position at CBN. The CBN deal showcases just how much more committed Jim is to TV than he is to Tammy.
Watching Jim flail about in an absurd display of secretly touting prosperity gospel is easy to laugh at considering he’s a manipulative scumbag. Laughing at Tammy, however, feels a little strange when she struggled to bring more gay people into Christianity and would overdose on drugs to cope with her husband’s cold nature towards her. Yet the movie is directed in a way so that we’d smirk and giggle at her the same way we would any other cautionary tale protagonist. The quick cuts between Tammy learning about Jim’s cheating to her appearing intoxicated on camera create this off tone. And as the film goes on, Tammy becomes so tragic that you nearly feel guilty for laughing at the breezy first act.
Creating an even more confusing tone is the range of performances. I really dug Cherry Jones as Tammy’s mother, playing that pitch-perfect Minnesota mom. She doesn’t feel like some Fargo caricature but a truly defined character you can connect with. Vincent D’Onofrio, however, goes straight into cartoonish territory with his portrayal of Jerry Falwell. Though Vincent nails the look, his delivery is so strangely awkward that it feels more like a character he’s playing for a Saturday Night Live skit. He should’ve taken a cue from Chastain and just do his own thing rather than try too hard to replicate Falwell and fail.
The few times that the film actually settles down turn out to be rather sobering. Watching Tammy deconstruct as she slowly realizes just how scummy an organization she’s involved with is loaded with catharsis. Her quiet moments of begging for an answer and finding none are heartbreaking. It’s easy to sympathize with her plight. Even Jim is portrayed with a similar sense of gullibility the way he is played like a fiddle by Falwell into being screwed out of his kingdom. Moments like that are worthy of the snapping editing to give the film that Scorcese style for an empire’s fall.
In bits and pieces, the film has its moments of dark humor and shocking reveals. As a whole, however, there comes a point where you have to ask just what the film is trying to say in its staging of all this. The bullet-point nature of how quickly this film zooms through Tammy’s rise and fall leaves little room for contemplation. What we’re left with is a handful of neat scenes for Chastain to flex her powerful acting prowess. There isn’t much left for a deeper observation on Tammy as the film stumbles around in its direction. All that we really get is cliff notes of her life with some knowing winks in between.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye makes a better documentary than it does a biopic. It fulfills the base Oscar bait checkmarks of fine performances built around a hallow retrospective. More effort has been placed into replicating the old-fashioned 20th-century look of televangelism than anything else. Perhaps the film is hoping we’ll be so mesmerized by the replication of Tammy’s many songs and broadcasts that we won’t think too hard about how we should feel about her. The final result is a spectacle where you laugh at her with her stumbling of Christian beliefs and then feel a little terrible by the final scene where she struggles to stay in the spotlight and fight for gay rights. It’s that TV movie of the week where you come for the allure of based-on-a-true-story dramatic reenactments and leave with little else.