Watching a biopic about a controversial figure can often lend an edge to an otherwise fairly traditional genre. Especially if they could almost equally be portrayed in a sympathetic or villainous light, the possibilities exist for something that stands out from the pack. So, while The Eyes of Tammy Faye is an enjoyable biopic, one with a fantastic leading lady turn, it does play things almost too safe. Instead of choosing an avenue, it swerves in between, opting for the most mainstream approach possible. The result is enjoyable, no doubt, but does suggest a great movie is hidden within this only decently good one. Debuting here at the Toronto International Film Festival (though I had seen it several weeks earlier), it will generate Best Actress buzz but not a ton else.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye wants to have its cake and eat it too. It’s a credit to star and producer Jessica Chastain that it kind of manages to pull it off. Without her, this would be a pretty generic experience, especially considering how one other central performance leaves something to be desired (more on that later). Chastain puts this one on her back, to be sure.
This biopic looks at the rise, fall, and eventual redemption of noted televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker (Chastain). Meeting her soon to be husband Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) in college, the only thing they love more than religion is each other. Her mother (Cherry Jones) is skeptical, but she’s all in. Hoping to preach the good word for a living, Jim has grand designs, while Tammy Faye enjoys a simpler touch, using puppets. Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, the pair are able to bring out the best in each other, eventually getting on television. This is the spark that will lead to their empire.
Creating what would become the world’s largest religious broadcasting network alongside Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) they’re initially revered for their message, which is more focused on acceptance and love (but also money in Jim’s case) than fire and brimstone. Tammy Faye also becomes a bit of an icon for her makeup, singing, and general vibe. Just when they seem to be on top of the world, revelations of financial shenanigans threaten to destroy it all. As their empire crumbles, Tammy Faye has to take a good long look in the mirror.
Jessica Chastain owns the screen here. She’s perfectly cast, looking the part but also just diving in fully to Tammy Faye. Chastain is always compelling to watch, and this is no exception, leading to one of her most fun turns to date. On the flip side, Andrew Garfield is miscast and really disappoints. He looks a bit like Jim, but the role is so thin and he brings so little, it’s a wash. Cherry Jones makes the most of her scenes, while Vincent D’Onofrio intrigues as Jerry Fallwell. That being said, it’s all about Chastain.
Director Michael Showalter is hamstrung by the script. Writer Abe Sylvia doesn’t know if this is a loving portrayal or a takedown piece, so it wants to be both, but kind of is neither. Showalter has the touch to navigate this, but it mostly just showcases how much worse it might have been without him. Sylvia and Showalter have Chastain in their quiver, and it’s the arrow they rightly pull out the most.
Oscar-wise, this is Best Actress or bust. Jessica Chastain could certainly contend for a nomination in Actress, but nothing else here, give or take Best Makeup & Hairstyling is worthy. The Eyes of Tammy Faye is all about its title character, to be sure, and that extends to its awards prospects.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye pales in comparison to the documentary of the same name, but as a pleasant biopic, it works. Jessica Chastain’s performance puts this one over the edge. After this TIFF bow, it’ll head to theaters in short order, so those of you who are curious won’t have to wait long. Chastain is worth the price of admission. The rest? Well, that’s more of a shrug.