The Eyes Of Tammy Faye Review: Jessica Chastain Shines In An Otherwise Muddled Movie [TIFF 2021]

"The Eyes of Tammy Faye" is an insecure movie. What does this film want to be? A wacky comedy? A biting satire? A drama with occasional bursts of humor? I suppose you could argue it could be all those things, and more – and I'd agree. But there would need to be some cohesive element tying all of that together. Unfortunately, director Michael Showalter never finds that and instead relies on clumsy, on-the-nose humor with occasional bursts of earnestness. It's clear that the movie thinks it's sympathetic toward Tammy Faye Bakker, the wife of infamous televangelist Jim Bakker. But is it, really? While there's sympathy for Tammy Faye here, she's a constant punching bag; a character who is ridiculed by the tone of every scene she's in. Look at her heavy make-up! Listen to her awkwardly sing about Jesus! Laugh at how clueless she is! It gets kind of gross after a while. 

The one element keeping "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" afloat is Jessica Chastain, who is all-in on playing the part. Chastain spends the entire movie under some form of prosthetic; even when she's playing a younger Tammy Faye, she's given rounder cheeks, and by the end of the film, she's unrecognizable. Sometimes people will use that term to refer to an actor in a good way, as if they disappeared into the role. In Chastain's case, her heavy make-up is distracting, and in her final scenes she starts to resemble Karl Havoc from the latest season of "I Think You Should Leave." 

Despite all that, Chastain does manage to turn in a heck of a performance. It's big, broad, and larger than life – but that's seemingly how the real Tammy Faye was for all her life, so it's understandable. But a memorable lead performance isn't enough. We need more. We need to understand why Tammy Faye matters, and who she really was – and "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" never quite delivers that. As much fun as Chastain is clearly having, right down to her Minnesota nice accent, Tammy Faye remains kind of a mystery here. She's portrayed as both savvy and oblivious. But perhaps the biggest takeaway is that Tammy Faye was – at least according to the movie – a nice person. Like all humans, she was flawed. But per the movie, she genuinely cared about people, and was willing to take on topics – like the AIDS crisis – that other religious folk wouldn't get near. 

Still, something just doesn't sit right here. Are we meant to laugh at scenes where she gets down on her knees in motel parking lots to ask for guidance? The way Showalter shoots them, it sure seems that way. There's nothing wrong with sending up religion – indeed, many organized religions, especially of the television variety, deserve to be satirized and picked apart. But the comedy never gets beyond a surface level. 

"The Eyes of Tammy Faye" unfolds traditionally, following Tammy Faye from her childhood onward. As a young woman, she meets charismatic preacher Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), and before long, the two are hitched and traveling around spreading the word of God. Bakker is sweet and loving toward Tammy Faye at first, but as the film rolls on, he becomes distant and cruel, subjecting Tammy Faye to what could easily be classified as emotional abuse. Garfield does the best he can with the role, but Bakker remains even more mysterious than Tammy Faye. We never get inside his head, and his various transgressions and actions are only glanced over, brought up via montages of TV news or newspaper headlines. What's he thinking? Why does he do the things he does? Is he a complete hypocrite, or a man who lost his way? I don't know, and apparently, neither does "The Eyes of Tammy Faye." 

This Movie Belongs to Jessica Chastain

There are tiny glimmers of a better movie lurking under all the wigs and make-up here. A scene late in the film has Tammy Faye admit that she loves playing for the cameras – leading someone to ask her, "Why?" It's clearly a question no one ever asked her before, and she seems taken aback by it for a moment before revealing that she thinks of the camera as a person she can talk to, and that keeps her from being lonely. It's a heartbreaking admission, and if "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" had more scenes that matched this insight, we'd have something special on our hands. Tammy Faye's strained relationship with her mother – played by Cherry Jones, who manages to deliver the only subtle performance in this entire thing – offers some chance for genuine drama, but that, too, is mostly glossed over after a few scenes. 

Again and again, the only thing making "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" special is Chastain. She's a phenomenal actress in general, and this is probably the meatiest role she's had in a while, even more so than things like "Molly's Game." She owns the movie, bustling with theatre kid energy. Belting out tunes – she has a good voice! – and putting on a consistently bubbly persona that occasionally cracks into harrowing despair, Chastain is so memorable here that her performance is likely to convince some viewers that the film itself is better than it is. 

But gosh, I wanted more. Why did so many people love Tammy Faye? What was it that she had that made her such a success? And what of her downfall? The film handles that only with a few clips of late-night hosts mocking her, but again, that's surface stuff. A film that tried to examine Tammy Faye's impact on the public, and how society gleefully tore her down the first chance it had, could result in a stronger movie. But there's no interest in that here. Worse, we never get a full sense of just what it was that Jim Bakker did that lead to the Bakkers' downfall. Like almost everything else in the movie, the details are glossed over.The film merely wants to serve as a showcase for Chastain's considerable talents, as if everyone involved decided she was overdue for an Oscar and this was finally her shot. 

But by the time the story has concluded and we're treated to one of those hacky moments where the actors in the film are shown side-by-side with images of the real people they were playing, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" feels hollow. Chastain gets some huge, showstopping moments – her final scene is genuinely terrific, and another scene that recreates Tammy Faye's on-air conversation with gay minister and AIDS activist Steve Pieters is effective and tender – but it would've been nicer if the movie itself was more worthy of her considerable talents.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10