WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Too often is it that biographical pictures strive to shine an empathetic light on tabloid-attracting celebrities, only to fall flat of exposing their subject’s true humanity. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”, the newest Oscar bait from Disney’s Fox Searchlight Pictures, is much the same, despite its ensemble cast and loosely feminist alignment.
The film is a quasi-hagiographic depiction of late twentieth century TV personality Tammy Faye Messner, played by Jessica Chastain, and the scourge of scandals that brought down her televangelist husband Jim Bakker, played by Andrew Garfield. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” joyously succeeds in depicting well-meaning public figures who weather scene after scene of pure comic misfortune.
But it is director Michael Showalter and screenwriter Abe Sylvia’s artlessly cynical sense of humor, hidden under cinematic layers of glossy makeup and cheap highlighter, which reduces these devious antics into a needlessly systematic suffer-o-rama.
As the main recipient of this affliction, Tammy Faye is acutely conceived in the image of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”, and with a similar literary depth. Supplementing such is Jessica Chastain’s facile acting chops which allow her to vanish under the particularly affable title character.
Round jawlines and a saccharine Midwestern accent would have been enough to suspend the disbelief of most viewers, but with enough heavy foundation and prosthetics to fill two careers’ worth of CIA undercover work. Chastain delivers textbook 1980s glam-camp in her light-touched evocation of Tammy.
Though it covers multiple aspects of her career, the dramatic brunt of this performance serves purely to visualize Tammy’s dysfunctional relationship with Jim Bakker. Notably, there is not a single scene in the entire two-hour runtime where Jim doesn’t manipulate, cajole, or exploit Tammy, who–either fueled by benzos or by a genuine belief in God–submits fully and faithfully to the cultural juggernaut of her husband’s project.
Watching the weight of their marriage shift via paralleling bathroom scenes across two acts is an admirable narrative feat, underscoring Jim’s frustrating lack of empathy and almost criminal level of emotional and mental scarcity.
With that in mind, it becomes abundantly clear that the most interesting material in the movie eschews the confines of the notorious “Praise the Lord” TV empire, on which both Jim and Tammy endure their eventual downfall. Tammy’s mother would be the example.
Depicted in coldly stoic form by Cherry Jones, Rachel Fairchild is like a character ripped from the pages of a Hawthorne tale set in early 17th-century Puritan America. Her presence as a judgmental bystander and curt soothsayer in her daughter’s living televangelical hell distinctly stands out, providing a much needed moral compass to an otherwise ethically ambiguous story.
Though her words of wisdom easily command the attention of the viewer, the mother’s role in alienating the optimistic Tammy at a young age has resulted in an emotional wall between the two. This division tragically prevented her from warning off the reckoning her daughter had coming ahead.
As a whole, what makes “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” a troubling watch isn’t the excess of bad things happening to its principal heroine, but rather Showalter’s repeated prioritization of schadenfreude over sympathy.
Though the promise of an anarchically surreal, everything-goes-wrong comedy would have been more than welcomed, the film stampedes through vital events of the real-life scandal. The impact of its cringe comedy is rendered devoid of emotion, making the movie a somewhat forgettable experience.
There are still moments where the filmmaker’s message feels legitimately incorporated. For instance, it’s not until the very last electrifying scenes of the picture that something purely good comes to Tammy, even as the pain of her past and the dimensions of her regrets push her further into an endless delusion.
It’s a parting moment from Tammy to both an audience in the movie as well as the audience of the movie itself in which she relinquishes her sanity and embraces the ghost of her former, carefree self. This sad surrender leaves the viewer wondering if Tammy ever truly felt God throughout the events of the preceding two hours—or, perhaps, if Tammy’s God ever reached out to her throughout the malaise of her entire life.
Wyatt Layland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.