It goes without saying that Jessica Chastain is one of the most interesting actresses working in Hollywood during last 10 years. Since she suddenly drew our attention via a string of stellar supporting turns from “The Help” (2011), “Take Shelter” (2011), and “The Tree of Life” (2011), she has steadily risen with a bunch of various performances including that unforgettably intense Oscar-nominated acting in “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), and that certainly made me admire more of her considerable talent.
In case of Michael Showalter’s new film “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”, Chastain, who is also one of its producers, surely does as much as she can do for the role she was determined to play for years since she watched Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary film of the same name. While often immersed in heavy makeup, she grandly and vividly projects disgraced American TV evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker’s irrepressible flamboyance on the screen, and she is certainly ready to go deep inside her character via her considerably committed performance, but, sadly, the movie itself only ends up scratching the surface without any clear direction. To be frank with you, I still do not know whether it simply laughs at its heroine’s absurd and ridiculous aspects or tries to understand what really makes her tick, and that only gives me more dissatisfaction in the end.
Abe Sylvia’s screenplay, which is adapted from the aforementioned documentary, follows a series of ups and downs in Tammy Faye’s life and career, and the early part of the film depicts how eager Tammy Faye was to grab attention from others even during her poor and miserable childhood period. Just because she is the reminder of her Christian mother’s shamefully failed first marriage, young Tammy Faye, who is played by young performer Chandler Head, is frequently pushed aside, but she is not discouraged at all as often praying to Jesus, and she surely impresses her mother’s fellow parishioners when she boldly enters their church and then demonstrates something quite memorable in front of them.
Several years later, Tammy Faye grows up to become your average Christian college student. On one day, she becomes attracted to a male student named Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) mainly because of his youthful charm and energy, and it does not take much time for them to move quickly along several next steps of their budding relationship. After discerning how eager both of them are to devote themselves to evangelism, they instantly quit their college, and they soon become a married preacher couple working from one spot to another.
Jim later turns out to be not so reliable in case of handling their financial matters, but then he and Tammy Faye luckily get themselves associated with a popular TV evangelist named Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), who willingly gives them their first break in the world of TV evangelism industry. Thanks to his charming presence and her plucky spirit, Jim and Tammy Faye swiftly rise to the top of their field during next several years, and then they even come to have their own successful TV network as the TV evangelism reaches to the peak in the 1980s. As lots of money is donated from millions of Christian viewers everyday, they live in a big and luxurious house full of expensive stuffs, and Tammy Faye is glad to see that her mother is impressed a bit despite being stern as before.
Of course, this glittering paradise of her and her husband eventually turns out to have many problems behind it. While Jim gets their business into a number of serious financial troubles, he and Tammy Faye find themselves more estranged from each other, and she also becomes a drug addict as constantly pushing herself into her TV work. Feeling lonely and isolated, she becomes tempted to lean on some other guy, but then she comes to clash with her husband over that matter, and she only ends up confessing about her infidelity on TV as suggested by her increasingly untrustworthy husband.
As too busily covering one incident after another in Tammy Faye’s life and career, Sylvia’s screenplay fails to generate much human depth to her, and that consequently makes Chastain’s diligent efforts look more like belonging to a superficial TV comedy sketch. While there are some glimpses of her character’s human complexity as briefly reflected by Tammy Faye’s open public support of sexual minority people and AIDS patients, these interesting elements are simply brushed aside in the end as the movie eventually focuses more on how Tammy Faye and her husband’s business was completely ruined in 1989, and we only come to observe her from the distance without getting to know or understand her much.
Around Chastain and Garfield, whose acting is also hampered a lot by his underwritten role (He was much better in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s recent debut feature film “tick, tick… BOOM!” (2021), by the way), several main cast members dutifully fill their respective spots despite having not many things to do on the whole. While Cherry Jones is seriously under-utilized as Tammy Faye’s disapproving mother, Gabriel Olds and Vincent D’Onofrio, who is nearly unrecognizable as Jerry Falwell, have some little fun while looking as sanctimonious as possible, and it is too bad that they are demanded to do no more than the caricature versions of their respective notorious real-life figures.
In conclusion, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is not entirely without fun and entertainment thanks to Chastain’s lead performance, but it ultimately feels like a passable demonstration of her undeniable acting talent, and it is also a big letdown compared to Showalter’s previous work “The Big Sick” (2017). That comedy drama film was much more engaging and entertaining in terms of story and characters, and I would rather recommend you to watch it instead of this disappointing misfire.