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Tammy Faye Bakker is easy to mock. The earnest wife of a disgraced televangelist, Jim Bakker, she ultimately faced personal and financial ruin, a scandal defined by galling hypocrisy and theatrical contrition—all while wearing bizarre makeup. In fact, entire generations of Americans may remember Bakker caricatures on Saturday Night Live better than they remember the woman behind them. Directed by Michael Showalter, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is an overcorrection in the other direction. Showalter and screenwriter Abe Sylvia suggest Faye is misunderstood, an innocent who used her platform to make the evangelist community more tolerant and human. There is truth to that, but Jessica Chastain’s committed lead performance leaves little room for the more accurate version: She helped her husband get rich by scamming millions of his parishioners.
We first meet Tammy Faye as a young girl in Minnesota, the poor daughter of a church pianist who wants nothing more than to be saved. Her mother (Cherry Jones) nonetheless forbids Tammy from entering the church because she was born out of wedlock, and her presence would bring shame to the family. Tammy’s yearning for God’s love and community acceptance comes to define her, so when she meets Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) in Bible college, she misinterprets his early rhetoric. When Jim talks about combining religious devotion and financial prosperity, Tammy thinks he’s talking about inclusivity. The pair are an unlikely couple, and thanks to their dynamic stage presence, they become celebrities in the televangelist circuit. But as Jim dreams about building his empire, including a Christian version of Disney World, Tammy feels increasingly lonely and isolated.
Although this film has no crude language or violence, it resembles the arc of gangster films. Jim Bakker, just like mobsters and other crooks, has a fractured idea of the American dream and is willing to steal in order to achieve it, while his spouse chooses to ignore the warning signs. And like Goodfellas, The Eyes of Tammy Faye depicts the vulgarity of Tammy Faye’s aesthetic choices. The difference between the best gangster films and this one is how Sylvia’s script and Showalter’s direction leave no room for subtext. There is a little sense of Tammy Faye’s interiority, or self-awareness. She is who she is, and that’s that. The film opens with Tammy explaining to a make-up artist how her eyeliner never comes off, which is a curious detail, except the film never delves into how this poor young woman from Minnesota, who had traditional style fashion choices for her early life, ultimately got there. Even Tammy’s frequent prayers offer little insight, since there is only a doe-eyed list of demands, not any spiritual reckoning.
Chastain is in nearly every scene of the film, and the most surprising thing about her performance is how she makes Tammy Faye so likable. She sings several songs, and the saccharine Christian pop is never grating. Still, her inherent charisma is most pivotal in the early scenes with Garfield, where Tammy uses her self-assurance and “Minnesota nice” attitude to reinvent the role of a preacher’s wife. That confidence is also present in the sex scenes, where Tammy is frank about Jim’s needs as well as her own; those scenes are mildly shocking (you don’t expect a preacher’s wife to discuss desire in such a way), and they set up arguments about infidelity that show how Jim and Tammy can be cruel when they feel wounded.
Unwavering pluck is an easy way for any actor to generate sympathy, and Chastain needs it, since the back half can be dramatic or maudlin. As Tammy becomes addicted to pills and more withdrawn, there are flashes of her deep empathy. There is a long, sad televised interview where Tammy talks to a gay man with AIDS via satellite. Showalter finally finds some depth—Tammy uses the man to talk about herself—except there is a queasiness to the revisionism. The Eyes of Tammy Faye presents her as a proto-ally of the LGBTQ community, as if her professional relationships with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell weren’t pivotal.
You may remember Showalter from the sketch comedy troupe The State, or directing films like The Big Sick. This is his most serious directing effort, and his choices are predictable to a fault. There is no interesting composition in this film, just a series of images that tell a typical American story of excess. If there are thought-provoking flourishes, they are unintentional. Showalter co-wrote Wet Hot American Summer, a film that spoofs cheesy montages that he reproduces here with zero irony. His early comedy always had a surrealist quality, and maybe that kind of freedom would add dimension to Tammy’s arc. Instead, his preferred approach is to stay out of his actors’ way. Chastain and Garfield heighten the shouting and histrionics, never quite veering into camp territory, because, to our disappointment, this film is too respectable for that.
The gangster protagonist usually has some flaw that causes their undoing: They’re too greedy, too violent, or too addicted to drugs. Greed is Jim Bakker’s flaw, along with a deep misunderstanding of personal finance, though the film chooses to look the other way with Tammy. She’s too trusting, perhaps, yet the film argues her devotion to Jim is genuine and correct. The Eyes of Tammy Faye casts her as a perpetual victim and occasional trailblazer. Those who sent Jim and Tammy their money, along with Tammy’s children, who barely appear in the film, might have a different version of what really happened.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is in theaters now.