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Jessica Chastain's bravura performance helps middling 'Eyes of Tammy Faye' overcome problematic script

If you see this movie, do it for Chastain's dedicated performance in the lead role. Everything else is disposable.
Credit: Searchlight Pictures
Jessica Chastain as "Tammy Faye Bakker" in the film THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

ST. LOUIS — Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) wasn't your average televangelist, winning people over with her wide net of acceptance and unusual but charming manner of singing. Along with her husband, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), she helped build a religious broadcast network that yielded 20 million viewers each show. But it all came crashing down due to human nature, among other things.

Going into Michael Showalter's film, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," I carried little knowledge of the Bakker duo that took over television sets in the 1970's and 80's. A husband and wife getting on television by preaching the gospel, only to deviate from that topic once a little success came their way. If they say religion is what you make of it, Tammy and Jim definitely stretched the nobility of that message. It became their niche: using a hot topic to essentially create a daytime lifestyle show. At one point, Tammy's mother (Cherry Jones) asks her daughter, "what does religion have to do with decorating cupcakes?" By the end of this film, you may be asking the same thing.

As earnest and relentless as the Bakkers were, you never quite grasp the power of their intentions or understand how nobody else could see them coming. Tammy's desire to welcome homosexuals and other groups of people who aren't usually welcome on a religious program was the secret ingredient; a woman coming at a famously closed-off area of worship from a different angle. But Jim's undermining of her tactics led to greed and financial hardships, which supposedly leads to the manufacturing of a redemption tale.

The problem is audiences don't get to spend much time with the redemption song portion of the story, instead being jammed up for the majority of its running time in the younger years of Tammy, her courtship with Jim, their launch into success, and predictable fall from grace. Most of those scenes feel carbon-copied from previous biopics, as if the audience is being quickly moved from one plot point to the next. This is where I will once again pledge that if you are thinking about making a movie about a famous person, please pick a portion of their life and lean into it--like Danny Boyle did with "Steve Jobs." This movie, like August's "Respect," just serves up the usual.

The story just isn't interesting enough to sustain an overlong run time of two-plus hours. While the makeup and costumes are fabulous, it all feels too much like dress up instead of an authentic story being told the only way possible. Instead of moving on from the middling rise and fall portion of "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" into the redemption epilogue, that final part feels rushed and insincere.

If there's a redeeming factor to the movie, it's Chastain's performance. The actress, who has quietly become one of Hollywood's finest performers, really goes for the wild spectacle that was Tammy Faye. From the makeup to the voice and singing, through the years, Chastain nails the role and lifts the rest of the film up with that performance. Unlike the rest of the film, she strikes a real chord with viewers--showing them a unique televangelist, one who wanted to use the well-worn vessel of god to sway the viewer. The juiciest trick of her work is the way we were never quite sure if she was truly a believer or just in it for the lifestyle--or the endless cans of Diet Coke she consumed.

At certain parts of the movie, Tammy endlessly looks on at the other characters with such a peculiar look, wondering what they are doing and why she should be interested at all. That's how I felt. Did I mention the movie felt like it was three hours long?

Here's the thing. Chastain's work had purpose. The rest of "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" was uneven, over the top, and mundane. Even Garfield stumbles through his role, garnering unintentional laughs at some of the dialogue reads and reactions. Vincent D'Onofrio shows up eventually, but doesn't register much due to an underdeveloped character. By the time I left the film, the documentary that the movie was based on seemed a lot more appealing. The dress-up aspect wouldn't be sitting there as a deterrent.

Only Chastain's bravura performance kept this movie from being a rotten tomato.

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