I saw the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye upon its release, over twenty years ago. After a couple decades of mental erosion, I remember only one moment, but I remember it quite sharply. Unsurprisingly, it’s that exchange, in which a makeup artist startled by the way previous heavy applications of products have left permanent marks on the visage of the bubbly televangelist, that leads the new fictionalized depiction of Tammy Faye Messner’s life. I’m clearly not the only person who found that exchange to be especially striking.
Under the guidance of director Michael Showalter (working from a script credited to Abe Sylvia), The Eyes of Tammy Faye sticks to the tedious conventions of the modern studio biopic. The evident belief is that the film will get a sheen of novelty from its relatively uncommon subjects, a pair of religious hucksters who parlayed an instinctive understanding of the medium of television into an empire before hubris and scandal brought them down. The film traces the duo’s humble beginnings, showing how Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) wooed a devoted Christian girl named Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain), making her his wife and cohort in bouncing joyful bible-thumping off of satellites to reach millions, netting windfalls along the way. The rise-and-fall narrative is so clearly in motion from the jump that the clickity-clack of a roller coaster ascending might as well play on the soundtrack.
The familiarity of the story structure could be more acceptable if it seemed Showalter and his creative collaborators had a point to make. The Bakkers’ success and comeuppance is a collection plate overloaded with topics that define U.S. culture: capitalism, religion, sex, media manipulation, and on and on. When Tammy Faye’s particular track is homed in on, the richness only grows, swooping in misogyny, camp, and bizarrely charismatic theatricality. Chastain understands that. She brings remarkable energy and pop to her performance, yet she consistently signals the humanity beneath the thick facade.
Chastain is nearly alone in finding the right balance. Cherry Jones does intricate, careful character work as Tammy Faye’s mother. Practically everyone else flounders. Garfield is uncommonly lost as Jim, hitting both the onscreen phoniness and offscreen oily desperation too hard, which only makes it harder to draw those two sides together into a single character. As Jerry Falwell, Vincent D’Onofrio channels Joe Don Baker at his hammiest. These choices might work if there was satirical intent to the film. There’s none that I could discern. The Eyes of Tammy Faye gives Chastain a platform to demonstrate anew that her talent is formidable. In most other respects, the film wanders through the desert of purposelessness.