Somewhere between parody and biopic lies The Eyes of Tammy Faye, an upsettingly almost-great, almost-terrible movie. It’s impossibly difficult to recommend, irresistibly discussable, and inevitably bringing Jessica Chastain her first Oscar. Outside of tepid racism, the Academy loves nothing more than a B+ impression, especially if it requires prosthetic cheeks.
The real Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were preachers/fraudsters who huckled Christian berries to the tune of millions at the dawn of the cable TV era. The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a fictional version of a documentary by the same name, almost achieves something secularly spectacular in its retelling of that tale. Writer Abe Sylvia and director Michael Showalter basically take the lying duo at their word, presenting them as two misguided souls who, gosh darn it just really love the Lord ya know, and stumbled along their way to save everybody from H-E double hockey sticks and/or AIDS.
The brilliance is that doing this, showing their version of events, immediately exposes the insanity of their argument. No one can actually believe the bullshit they say they believed. Instead of telling audiences that, instead of shaming the real-life criminals by finger wagging and exposition, The Eyes of Tammy Faye just shows the absolute buffoonery at its mostest nakedest.
The goofy, addled performance of Andrew Garfield as Jim has been unfairly dismissed. His acting is the criticism here. His puffy faced intense sincerity exposes Bakker the faker better than any glib stylistic heavy handedness from filmmakers. Chastain’s Tammy Faye is a different matter… Oh, she’s great. Her giggle-and-lilt imitation is maybe a bit more SNL host than featured player performance, but she goes beyond the façade. She turns Tammy Faye into a legitimate character, an appallingly basic approach that the vast majority of biopics poopoo.
No, the poopoo here is the third act. Well, the epilogue really. Whatever you call the last 20 minutes or so that actively works to undo everything transgressive and quasi-genius that had been so enrapturing. The Eyes of Tammy Faye explicitly lets its titular figure off the hook or down from the crucifix or whatever. It stops being a self-serious satire and faceplants itself into a boilerplate celebrity tragedy, complete with redemption arc.
The bulk of the film screams at you that Tammy Faye was a complicit manipulator. Chastain channels so much “knowing” behind those mascara-caked eyelashes. To deliver an ending that forgives her without legitimate repentance, that absolves her of her sins for kind of being tolerant of gay people or something, is repellant on so many orders of magnitude. Mostly because if it hadn’t, evangelizing for the film as something transcendent would have been easier than asking old people to donate their life-savings so the Bakkers could build a Jesus-themed waterpark.
The perfect first scene, in which a young Tammy Faye quite clearly fakes speaking in tongues because she sees the church as her only means of escape, is marred and cheapened by the bookend, which invites the audience to pity her for her fakery. The final, final shot is okay-ish, resurrecting the theme of grandiose delusion, but the previous few minutes strip it of all its potential.
What do you do with a film with profound performances that’s bonkers brilliant for four fifths and skidmarks itself across the finish line? You give it a C+ I guess?
Grade = C+
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Roxana Hadadi says “for a film that begins with its subject saying, ‘This is who I am,’ The Eyes of Tammy Faye doesn’t dig deep enough into that statement.”
Courtney Small at CinemaAxis says the film “is nothing more than an attempt to reframe the legacy of Tammy Faye. One that completely ignores the generations of problematic televangelists that she and Jim helped to birth.”
Carla Hay of Culture Mix says “when you portray people who became much-ridiculed public figures by their own doing, it’s nearly impossible to avoid becoming caricatures when acting out what it was like to be these human train wrecks.”