Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker in 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye.'
| Credit: Searchlight Pictures

There they are, like windows to the soul ringed in a thousand strokes of Maybelline: The Eyes of Tammy Faye. In the movie's opening scene its titular subject, played by a deep-cover Jessica Chastain, is explaining brightly to a startled makeup artist that it's all tattooed on anyway, her lips and eyelids already set in permanent ink. Michael Showalter's dizzy biopic of the fallen real-life televangelist (which premiered Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival, and will be released in theaters Sept. 17) likewise comes drawn in bold, broad strokes — a fond treatment of a flawed but fascinating American icon whose revelations feel mostly cosmetic in the end.

Chastain and Andrew Garfield (as Tammy's future husband and fellow true believer Jim Bakker) both have piles of prosthetics and costumes to help put them in their historical place, an overflowing toy box of wigs and jowls and spangled cable-access couture. That's a lot of kooky visual mood-boarding for any actor to work through, and sometimes more than the pair can fairly handle as the film goes on; even tragedy looks like camp when it's dressed in bedazzled poly-blends, downing Diet Coke and Ativan.

Chastain, her diamond-cut jawline widened to a softer chipmunk curve, embodies Tammy Faye as a sort of happy-go-lucky naif with a "Oh yah sure ya betcha" Minnesota lilt; the restless daughter of a stiff-backed housewife (Cherry Jones) whose stern propriety seems to have sent her eldest child hurtling in the opposite direction. Tammy loves the Lord too, but the only way she knows how to show it is loudly, and with wide-open arms. So she's lucky to find her match in Garfield's Jim — an ambitious young pastor who shuns the idea that serving God has to mean taking a vow of poverty (or, it will later become clear, chastity).

Soon these two little country mice are rising in the ranks of the traveling-preacher circuit of the 1960s and '70s, and rubbing up against Baptist royalty like Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) and Jerry Falwell (a stentorian, slow-blinking Vincent D'Onofrio). It turns out there's a real market for Jim and Tammy's brand of folksy, inclusive Christianity, with its sock puppets and sunny prosperity gospel. As their humble talk show becomes an empire, the spotlight on the couple grows — even President Ronald Reagan sends a personal note of thanks — and so does their estrangement. It doesn't help that Jim seems so preoccupied with squeezing more and more pledges from their TV faithful, and that Tammy can't stop breaking church protocol by opening up the show to AIDS patients and other unmentionables. Eventually, there's a mostly emotional affair with a hunky music producer (hers) and less chaste tangles with infidelity (his); it isn't long before they're hardly speaking to one another, and the secular press is asking where exactly all the money went.

Chastain's Tammy, with her chunky jewelry, chirpy optimism, and forlorn-panda gaze, is never really held to account for any of that; it's Jim, shifty and short-tempered, who shoulders the blame for the couple's financial malfeasance, even if she's happy enough to spend it on brooches and chandeliers and fox furs for her mother. The fate of the couple's marriage seems foregone by the time they have their first child, though Tammy might be the last one to know it, and the decades turn over quickly, a Wikipedia whirl of headlines and winky style signifiers. (If the hair is Dynasty-high and the manicures are magenta, it must be the 1980s).  

If it all comes off as episodic and not a little bit like an elevated TV movie, that may be because it's actually based on the cult 2001 documentary of the same name, a sympathetic and unabashedly camp tribute to "the first lady of religious broadcasting" directed by the same filmmaking pair who would go on to create RuPaul's Drag Race (RuPaul actually served as narrator). Their focus on Tammy Faye's famous inclusivity — her embrace of gay and HIV-positive parishioners from the pulpit was considered straight-up radical at the time — undoubtedly sidelined other less-explored aspects of her life. Actor-turned-director Showalter (The Big Sick) also chooses to keep his Eyes wide shut in a movie that feels both sweet and incomplete: a story as tenderhearted and inscrutable, for better or worse, as its muse. Grade: B

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The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021 Movie)
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