Director: Michael Showalter
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Vincent D’Onofrio
With an approach to subtlety that makes House of Gucci look positively mannered, Michael Showalter’s brash biopic of TV evangelist Tammy Faye flings itself toward The Academy like a monkey on a tyre swing. Jessica Chastain is Showalter’s howling primate gurning for pennies. As she swoops before you there’s no glimmer of grace. This is movie-making from the Ryan Murphy school of showbiz storytelling. It’s gaudy, campy and sits heavy on the belly like a greasy meal.
Caked in layers of wholly distracting (and arguably unnecessary) facial prosthetics, Chastain and Andrew Garfield play Tammy Faye and Jimmy Bakker, devout Christians who fell in love, married and chased a dream to preach the word of the Lord… on public access television. With their production company PTL Studios (that’s Praise The Lord), and a novelty puppet act created on the spur of the moment by the wildly unhinged Tammy, the two found success that lasted them over a decade before various scandals started to eclipse their preferred notoriety. The Eyes of Tammy Faye claims to tell that story and more, but comes from a place of oddly coded mockery, far more inclined to take pot-shots at it’s protagonists than attempt any kind of credible investigation.
Eyeballing the camera like a tangerine gargoyle, Chastain puts in a comedic amount of effort to create her version of Tammy; a rickety, preposterous psycho that one might disregard wholesale if this ‘extra’ level of persona – and psychosis – wasn’t in it’s own way befitting. TV evangelism is rife with such excess, and the illusion of wealth and status is strangely wired into its ethos. Like the kingpins of pyramid schemes, these hucksters trade on exaggerated personalities and the codification of money to lure credit cards from wallets. The Eyes of Tammy Faye has unbridled disdain for such gimmicks, and is keen to out these Christian centrists as hypocritical, horny and somewhat deserving of their inevitable downfall. The largess in the performances is likeable to the satirical puppets of Spitting Image.
Trying to emote through such heavy make-up may have a lot to do with it. Garfield has to contend with nearly as much facial furniture as Chastain, and he too delivers a performance two of three hundred decibels louder than usual. The make-up job gives the pair the same cushiony bone structure. An unfortunate side effect of this is that they resemble brother and sister more than husband and wife. When the two start caterwauling at each other around the start of the third act, it’s hard not to read the whole as a comedic farce. It is this attitude that gives The Eyes of Tammy Faye an uncomfortable air of punching down. That same Hollywood contempt for the South that evidences itself so clearly in the comparable likes of I, Tonya and Hillbilly Elegy. Whether its justifiable contempt is neither here nor there. It prejudices the result.
As such The Eyes of Tammy Faye feels – ironically – like preaching to the converted. It’s difficult to believe that the couple’s dyed-in-the-wool fanbase will garner much from this pantomime rendition, other than the general sense of having being offended. Meanwhile, those that sneer at such trashy exploitation in the name of religion will only have their own opinions intensified.
The script’s eagerness to cure with comedy occasionally shines through. When Tammy’s disapproving mother Rachel (Cherry Jones) tells her, “You had enough drugs in you to kill a truck driver”, the moment – and the line reading – is undeniably funny. And, when the film goes for something approaching tenderness (it’s handling of Jimmy’s closeted homosexuality) it sparkles with the potential to become a whole other picture. Garfield’s relative restraint in these moments belies the cartoonishness of much of the rest.
At large – and it is so very large – The Eyes of Tammy Faye feels like a side-swipe at Trump’s America that’s arrived over a year too late. Granted, his mob of miscreants, racists, homophobes and zealots haven’t gone away entirely (it would be dangerous to assume they had), but this movie feels like the retort that comes to you two or three days after the moment when the wit would’ve served you best.
The dull cataloging of the duo’s downfall renders the third act an exercise in box-ticking, making the movie feel much too long. By the time it gets to Chastain bellowing out Tammy’s opening number at her late-career revival, we’ve grown too weary to enjoy the camp extravagance.
I keep thinking of the cans of Diet Coke that litter nearly every scene here, like cocaine around the mansion of Tony Montana. The end result has a comparably strange and dissatisfying taste. A facsimile of the real thing but, at the same time, so entirely different from it.
I guess the best you could say is that this is the Scarface of TV evangelism movies.