Cast: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones, Fredric Lehne, Louis Cancelmi. Directed by Michael Showalter.
Whatever else is true of the ultra-conservative Christians in the US, it has to be said that their taste in interior design is questionable, to say the least. It might be understating it but the hair and make-up, production design and costume design for The Eyes of Tammy Faye manage to perfectly nail the gaudy, tasteless excess with which the televangelist and bible bashers populate their sets and indeed their homes. Excess appears to be the keyword for this film.
Following the rise and fall of TV personality, and good Christian girl, Tammy Faye Bakker as well as her husband, televangelist Jim Bakker, The Eyes of Tammy Faye charts her life from outcast child of divorce, to enthusiastic Christian girl, to TV puppet personality, to the biggest religious figure on a major TV network.
For those who might not be familiar with the life and work of Tammy Faye Bakker, or have not seen the 2000 documentary on which this film is based, Tammy Faye is one of those people you see on channel 200 just after the kids channels but before you get to pay-per-view porn, one assumes. Both she, and her husband, began life as two devout Christians who wanted to spread the word of God on TV. We see their early time on the screen, unappreciated by their boss, but beloved by adults and kids alike for Tammy’s inventive puppet routines and her wonderful singing voice.
The early scenes we get a sense that Tammy is just a woman who wants to be loved, and who feels a great deal of love in her heart. Jessica Chastain plays this with only the slightest hint of mania, and while she is caked in make-up to give her Tammy Faye’s chipmunk cheeks, you very quickly stop noticing it, and just buy into the performance. Chastain is the star of this film, and it’s on her shoulders that it works. While Andrew Garfield replete with ever sagging jowls and a whispy voice portrays Jim as someone on the verge of bursting into tears.
The film gets most things right, Cherry Jones is stern as Tammy’s cold-hearted mother, and Vincent D’Onofrio fills the screen as the fearsome Pastor Jerry Falwell who is the big leagues of TV religion. Around all this is a sense that Tammy might not be naive but someone who buys into the world of the bible to the letter. We see her talk to a man with AIDs, constantly talk about how they should stay out of politics, that the LGBT community should be loved. Her emphasis is on healing, not damnation.
The film is directed by Michael Showalter with a steady and occasionally stylish hand, but it never fully commits to being a black comedy or a straight-faced biographical film. The need to skip years is often done with a fun montage usually replete with another gaudy outfit for Chastain to dance in and sing and Christian song. The issue is Abe Sylvia’s script is nowhere near as dark-hearted as it should be. At times you can see a film like this being similar to I, Tonya but the darkness at the heart of the film – corruption, greed, closeted homosexuality, addiction – is often swept aside in the mad rush to get to the next milestone.
The film doesn’t mock religion so much as the religious, the belief that if you pray and claim Jesus loves you then you can get away with doing anything you want. It shows the rampant corruption within organised religions and that everything is a bid to win money. The film makes it clear that the donations were people trying to buy their way into heaven.
While uneven, and at times frustrating, Chastain and Garfield hold the film aloft with the power of their combined performances, reminding us that both are A-list performers that can elevate even a ropey script. Praise be.