The life of Tammy Faye Bakker is the kind of true-blue American story that is so bizarre and larger-than-life, it’s only fitting to be a passion project for someone of star/producer Jessica Chastain’s caliber. The Eyes of Tammy Faye, also named after the 2000 documentary, following the scandalous life of one of the most infamous, and elusive, televangelists is given the generic Hollywood biopic treatment in a film that consistently reminds you of how great it could’ve been, but rarely ever achieves.
The biopic, directed by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick, Hello My Name is Doris) chronicles the rise and fall, and eventual rise again, of infamous Evangelical star Tammy Faye Bakker (Chastain), along with her first husband, Preacher Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). Emerging alongside the likes of right-wing televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), Jim and Tammy make a splash on television leading to their immensely popular Christian variety show, The PTL Club. Tammy was a singularity in that she was a devout Christian who didn’t shy away from preaching her faith, but was also a notable advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. In one of the films most moving moments, Tammy opens her heart and interviews an AIDS patient on live television, much to the chagrin of her colleagues.
While admittedly, Chastain’s performance takes awhile to gel, the Oscar-nominee delivers layers of vulnerably alongside a larger-than-life charm under pounds of make-up. Chastain, alongside a terrific Andrew Garfield, anchors the film whenever the tone becomes too muddled. Garfield, giving a true chameleon-like performance, defying his age and physique, is quickly becoming one of modern day’s finest new character actors. Once both actors disappear as the Bakker’s, they’re simply electric.
Director Michael Showalter wrings strong work from his extensive cast, which also includes memorable turns from Cherry Jones as Tammy’s disapproving mother and Vincent D’Onofrio as the smarmy Jerry Falwell, and there is a certain peppy energy to the storytelling that does its best to match the personality of its subject. However, Showalter doesn’t show the range as a filmmaker to bring the invigorating true story to life. With no strong narrative force, the film jumps from time period to major life event with little precision, the film feels largely unfocused. Showalter doesn’t find a clear tonal lane to stay in, meandering between bits of satire with dry biopic clichés that are beyond tired at this point. There is a bit of a spark in the films epilogue that finds Tammy Faye several years after the scandal that brought her husband to prison. Not only is this where Chastain’s vibrant performance fully comes together, but it brings the film to a more interesting close that Showalter and screenwriter Abe Sylvia would’ve been wiser to have dug a bit deeper into.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye can’t help but coast on the initial intrigue of it’s one-of-a-kind subject and it’s electric starring performances. Unfortunately, the potential for what could have been is smothered by a conflicting tone and an unadventurous narrative with little insight into the mind of its compelling subject. It serves better as a starring vehicle for its leads, but not a deep or poignant piece of cinema.