One of the greatest media scandals of the 1980s was that of Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker’s roller coaster ride from being a shining example of televangelist ministry to a financial nightmare of fraud. The fall from grace for this married couple was a national story, with punchlines a plenty cropping up in the frenzy that followed. Director Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye marks the most recent project that has tried to show the people behind the parody, in particular the titular devotee played by Jessica Chastain, and while Chastain’s performance is a guiding light in a field of well-played roles, the film itself is a sinfully uneven biopic.
Acting as both a chronicle of Tammy Faye Bakker’s journey through faith, and a recounting of the major scandals that would destroy her husband’s ministry, The Eyes of Tammy Faye tries to tackle two fronts at once. The effort is indeed admirable, and to a certain point entertaining and informative as the movie tells a story that's still fresh in the minds of some who lived through it as it happened. Sadly, the final result feels like a quick Cliff's Notes version of what really happened, with a blazing fast pace robbing the movie of any semblance of impact. And unfortunately, the exemplary performances of most involved get lost in the process.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is Jessica Chastain’s movie, even if it doesn’t allow her to be the focus.
When the film starts off showing the courtship of Tammy (Chastain) and her husband-to-be Jim (Andrew Garfield), the foundation of what’s to come feels stable. Chastain and Garfield’s electric energy propel the film in the first act, showing the couple’s rise to fame coming quickly. But eventually, when the narrative hits the meat of what The Eyes of Tammy Faye tries to accomplish, the focus starts to split, and Jessica Chastain’s performance isn’t enough to keep the film grounded.
As the infamous scandal that ruined the Bakker’s public image takes center stage, the story of Tammy Faye becomes more of a parallel thread than the main thrust. Jessica Chastain still gives her performance the attention it deserves, but the script by writer Abe Sylvia doesn’t allow The Eyes of Tammy Faye’s eponymous character to be the true focus of the film. Which is a shame, because Chastain’s performance is really the epicenter of the amazing cast assembled to tell this story.
Performance triumphs over story in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, as tone and subject matter are left without a shepherd.
The narrative of The Eyes of Tammy Faye may be a bit of a mess, but the performances that are included in the telling are absolutely worth watching. With an ensemble of actor that boasts Cherry Jones and Vincent D’Onofrio on top of Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield, Michael Showalter’s film benefits from a roster of talent that bring their A-game. But even with heavy hitters giving the project their all, the lack of focus severely limits the enjoyment of the finished product.
Jessica Chastain shines as brightly as she does in The Eyes of Tammy Faye not only because of her unique talents, but also because of the fact that she’s supposed to be the star of the show. Her go for broke performance only fuels those around her, Andrew Garfield especially, and there’s some moments of brilliance that do make an impression. Which only makes the lack of choice to either focus on Tammy Faye’s personal journey, or the rise and fall of the PTL Ministry, all the more damaging.
While trying to play as both a personal biopic and an examination of a scandal, The Eyes of Tammy Faye fails to choose a path to walk.
As if the accelerated pacing of The Eyes of Tammy Faye didn’t already rob the story of cohesion, the film’s attempt at being both a scathing indictment of a scandal and a personal dissection of the woman behind the myth falls flat. Save for the performances of the cast, anchored by Jessica Chastain’s luminous efforts to hold everything together, this is a missed opportunity to dig deeper into either the woman, or the scandal that rocked her world. Much like the montages that show Tammy Faye’s personal struggle spiraling out of control, the movie doesn’t know what to hold onto when it’s supposed to hit its stride.
There’s an effort made in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and one cannot discount the work that went into bringing this controversy to life in a more humane light. It’s just a shame that the movie we’re left with didn’t live up to the promise that its cast, and the concept itself, had going for it. While this film may be worth watching for the performances, as well as a quick and dirty look into a massive pop culture scandal, it’s ultimately a soul that’s lost its way, unable to find the salvation it aspires to.
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