Director Michael Showalter has made a grave departure from his humble Wet Hot American Summer (2001) origins and is moving toward diversifying his repertoire.
Showalter’s major directorial credits have consisted of a Ray Romano stand-up special, a quirky Sally Field vessel, and two mildly funny romantic comedies starring Kumail Nanjiani. To suddenly make the jump to a dramatic biopic, especially one about “Soldiers in Christ,” primetime televangelist couple Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker, may raise some doubt. Can he handle the period piece framing? Can he pull off the necessary tonal shifts to translate this whirlwind drama to the silver screen?
While technically, yes, he can, much of the credit should rightfully be given to its two leads.
Andrew Garfield has proven himself quite good at playing scummy, manipulative cowards (see Gia Coppola’s otherwise terrible Mainstream from earlier this year, in which he plays a modern-day David Dobrik-esque version of the type). But really, the talent is in the title.
Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye is the performance of her career. Prosthetics and heavy makeup aside, her capacity to empathize with a character who could easily provide grounds for mocking (and who has been numerous times throughout pop culture history), is unmatched.
She is the substance and the glue that holds together an otherwise naïve and conventional portrait of a compassionate woman who is made a fool by her husband’s deceptions.
It’s quite compelling that Tammy Faye’s draw to the church was due to her exclusion from it. Her mother having been labeled a “harlot,” she was warned never to go near the institution “lest” she wanted to get her family’s reputation soiled for good. That doesn’t stop her from undergoing an Evangelical awakening, during which she writhes on the church floor shouting gibberish.
The preacher declares it as a miracle. Whether these theatrics were staged or genuine, it’s clear that she felt that the only way to share her love was to exist in a body where love was the rule.
Over time, she separates herself from the unsavory rules and regulations of her locale and finds new hope in marrying the charismatic (and almost child-manslaughterer) Jim Bakker, who takes her on the road.
Once they find their place at Praise the Lord network, things seem to take shape for Tammy. Her changes in hairstyle and makeup quantity are reflective of the changing times. The Christian rock anthems (sung by Chastain, with limited vocal editing) accompany the program’s growth, and are also far too catchy for their own good.
Showalter’s direction stands out the most in the beginning: long shots of the studio, the perfect amount of Chastain close-ups (to help acclimate the viewer to her intense new look), and some groovy montage choices that really capture the unbridled chaos of filming a television show dedicated to religious conversion. The first hour flies by, perhaps to a fault, in respect to some of the details the film glosses over. Regardless, it’s good filmmaking.
The unremarkable elements can be spelled out like this: “rags to riches music biopic.” Even as The Eyes of Tammy Faye delivers on some stellar acting and cosmetic elements (costumes, makeup, production design), it has trouble distancing itself from other films about musical stars with wily husbands, especially given its PG-13 rating.
Showalter shoots himself in the foot when he decides to incorporate a farrago of real life news clips regarding Jim Bakker’s fraud scandals. In his defense, Showalter employs a similar tactic in the opening credits when he shows the program at its most successful. However, that is just a technique designed to set the context for the rest of the movie. It doesn’t disrupt the flow because the flow has yet to exist.
On the other hand, when the viewer has spent the first ninety-minutes suspending their disbelief of two well-known actors playing the roles of Jim and Tammy Faye, it’s a shocking cop-out to suddenly use newsreel against faux archival footage in which the two are poorly transposed in a TV interview, à la Forrest Gump.
It completely deflates the tension the film has been gradually building, making for a goofy, borderline satirical take on faith-based hypocrisy.
From that point on, the movie makes Tammy Faye out to be a sad, pathetic woman (despite her eventual remarriage and her relationship with her two children, of which neither are addressed), who is looking for an audience to her obsolete sermon. It’s a tragic way to go out. Showalter attempts to give Chastain her A Star is Born moment with a rousing rendition of a Tammy Faye hit, but it just doesn’t work. No one can argue that she hasn’t been fantastic for the entire run.
The pity conjured by the final few minutes is a product of poor creative choices that falter her real world impact.
The prospects of legitimacy were slim for this movie. It’s a big story, with a big personality at the center of it. Nailing Tammy Faye is a hard thing to do, but most will agree that Chastain manages it.
If the film excels in one aspect, it’s the display of heart. Showalter might have a career in dramas ahead of him, and Chastain will likely have an Oscar nomination. If the chips are going to fall where they may, The Eyes of Tammy Faye will have a successful cinema run, and mostly for good reason.