It’s not unusual for documentaries to be made into movies, rare but not unheard of. If done well, the film and the documentary can complement, sometimes even enrich each other. Or the film can feel like a lukewarm rehash of the documentary with little of the original’s flavor and less insight.
The original 2000 documentary, also titled The Eyes of Tammy Faye, was directed by Randy Barbato and narrated by RuPaul. It took a public figure – long a subject of ridicule and scorn, Tammy Faye Bakker, wife of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker – and gave us a lens through which she was a tragic figure. The documentary was tongue-in-cheek but also earnest, and by the end, I found myself admiring and pitying Tammy Faye. Sadly, Showalter’s film does precious little to make itself stand apart aside from showcasing a few impeccable performances.
Jim and Tammy Faye were the head of the PTL, and Jim created the now infamous “700 Club”. The PTL was one of the first churches to have its own satellite, as the duo preached the prosperity gospel. They even created a Christian-style amusement park, replete with a colosseum.
Jessica Chastain plays Tammy Faye in a part mimicry and part possession performance. She never nails down the accent, but she does nail the beguiling charm and almost childlike naive belief in goodness and of God. She’s so good that the fact that The Eyes of Tammy Faye is so mediocre becomes increasingly infuriating as the film rolls along.
The film covers much of the same ground as the Barbato documentary, sometimes using the same footage in less effective ways. The problem is that it’s hard to tell what kind of film Showalter wants to make for much of The Eyes of Tammy Faye. I get the sense that he wanted to make a comedic tragedy, but Chastain’s performance is too endearing, Abe Sylva’s script is too soft, and Showalter’s direction is too weak for any of it to work.
Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker is fine, but he doesn’t capture the essence of Jim quite like Chastain does Tammy. I like Garfield, but I never see the character in almost every role I see him in. This might be the closest he’s come to disappearing into a role, but his co-star outshines him.
He’s not alone, however, in being outshined. Vincent D’Onofrio as Jerry Falwell is woefully miscast. Never mind that he doesn’t look, sound, or even behave like the sleazy pastor; he’s not even that fun to watch. Instead, he plays Falwell like a southern version of his “Daredevil” character King Pin, right down to the heavy breathing and menacing intonations.
If Showalter didn’t have Chastain, then The Eyes of Tammy Faye would have been an unbearable directionless slog. Even with Chastain, the movie isn’t that good, but at least we have her talent to keep us entertained. But the film can’t bring itself to comment on anything.
Both Jim and Tammy Faye are devout Christians, yet Showalter and Sylvia frame the story as mocking the Bakkers. Considering the scandal and almost soap-operatic corporate machinations that led them to exile, it’s understandable why they would take that tone. At the same time, it’s hard to laugh or sneer when the leads are so earnest and aiming to play the specificity of the emotional beats.
Sylvia and Showalter don’t seem that interested in Jim and Tammy’s belief in the Prosperity Gospel. One scene has Tammy visiting Jim in prison, and Jim offhandedly mentions that after some thinking, he wondered, “Were we preaching that God doesn’t love you if you’re poor?” But like everything else, the movie never bothers to look any further.
The filmmakers have so little care for the story that they introduce Roe Messner (Sam Jager), a contractor for The Heritage Foundation. Roe goes into business with Jim and Tammy, and the PTL. But they never tell us that Roe and Tammy eventually married and that Roe was also caught up in the PTL scandal and went to prison.
Whatever crimes Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker may have committed, the film does little to exonerate, shed light on, or even indict. Sylvia’s script is far too shallow to have anything resembling an opinion on the entire fiasco, and Showalter is much too busy trying to impress rather than harness the story. The Eyes of Tammy Faye is from Tammy’s point of view, but by the end, we don’t know her any more than when we did at the beginning.
The one storyline that works is between Tammy and her mother Rachel, played by the always great Cherry Jones. If there’s anyone else matching Chastain’s level of characterization, it’s Jones. Tammy’s relationship with her mother is fascinating because, at first, it appears that Rachel doesn’t even like Tammy. But by the end, it’s clear that she loves her daughter more than anything and worries about her constantly, but, unlike Tammy, she struggles with expressing love.
The dynamic between the two women is the most engaging subject The Eyes of Tammy Faye tackles. If only because Jones and Chastain give the most deeply felt and human performances. Both women were born poor, and both women understand how fickle churches can be towards women. Yet, Tammy is full of love and hope while Rachel is suspicious and pessimistic.
Mike Gioulakis’s camera does a lot to immerse us into Tammy Faye’s world. Still, too often he and Showalter choose flashy movements that ruin or muddy the emotional resonance of the moment. One such instance happens after Tammy Faye becomes addicted to pills and goes live on air high as a kite. Gioulakis does the standard from the character’s point of view with hazy photography, focusing onstage lights, and trippy music. The problem is it’s all so stylized that the moment is neither funny, heartbreaking, or anything else aside from cliche.
The irony is that this exact moment in the documentary was a mixture of both hilarious and sad, a human moment captured on camera without any artifice. In the end, that’s the problem with The Eyes of Tammy Faye. It’s a tale involving people of all sorts – corrupt and pure, bright and ignorant – but in the end, there’s no depth or shading. The film itself lacks any conviction of any kind one way or the other, and that’s its actual sin.
Images courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
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