Saturday, September 18, 2021

Jessica Chastain shines in the disappointingly conventional biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye


Tammy Faye, a singer, performer, and former wife of televangelist Jim Baker, is one of those real-life people so oversized that she seems like she wandered off from a movie. Channeling Dolly Parton in her fashion and makeup, armed with a voice that's like a cross between Jessie Buckley in Fargo and Kristen Chenoweth, and always saying what's on her mind with perky energy, Faye is quite the character. She's also the star of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which saddles a distinctive figure and a terrific lead performance from Jessica Chastain with an extremely conventional, though not necessarily bad, narrative. 

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is another one of those cradle-to-grave biopics, so we begin with Tammy Faye in her childhood, where she's forbidden to go into church with her family since she was conceived from her mom's prior marriage. She finally gets to go in and stay after pretending to have an extreme religious experience, complete with old-timey chants, during the preacher's sermon. This opening establishes Faye as someone in need of love and as someone who knows how to use showmanship to exploit theology for her own means. 

Flash forward to adulthood and Faye (now played by Jessica Chastain) is an adult who's married preacher Jim Baker (Andrew Garfield). Falling in love in college, the duo are setting out to deliver entertainment through the masses first through a traveling roadshow, then through sporadic appearances on a public television show, and finally hosting their own program. As their empire grows, so too do problems in Faye's marriage with Baker. The duo started out with a romance right out of a fairy tale but now, nothing in either their relationship or shady televangelist media company can possibly end well.

Aby Sylvia's screenplay for The Eyes of Tammy Faye (which is directed by Michael Showalter) is an oddly tidy creation. Even something as simple as Faye first getting people's attention through cutesy puppets espousing Christian morals has to be rooted in a backstory involving Faye talking to her hand as a lonely child. Everything's got a backstory here and the emphasis on all the explanations, combined with the overly expansive scope of the movie, makes The Eyes of Tammy Faye a film more in love with factoids than characters or themes. It's a bundle of answers to trivia questions that often forgoes depth in the process.

Trimming down how much of Faye's life it covered, or at least finding more imaginative ways to cover that life than the linear narrative Sylvia commits to, would've improved The Eyes of Tammy Faye immensely. It also would've helped if Showalter had demonstrated more ingenuity in executing this straightforward tale. Save for employing fisheye lenses when depicting Faye in the middle of a drug-induced stupor, The Eyes of Tammy Faye doesn't have much visual imagination to its name. Too often , Showalter leans heavily on news clippings to convey important information instead of letting us see the characters grapple with big developments in subtle and engaging ways.

These problems make The Eyes of Tammy Faye a frustratingly pedestrian exercise, one that doesn't have more to offer in tackling big ideas than drawing broad parallels between the scheming nature of Baker and modern-day people (like a certain former president) who use Christianity as a cover for exploitation. That having been said, Showalter does keep things moving at a reasonable clip and the movie remains quite agreeable to watch. There's plenty of nifty-looking costumes around, some well-executed pieces of dark humor, and there's nothing in here that proves tedious. It's all paint-by-numbers, sure, but The Eyes of Tammy Faye is never a chore to watch.

That achievement is largely because of one key ingredient: Jessica Chastain. If there's a reason to watch this movie, it's to see Chastain remind us all that Dark Phoenix was a fluke, she's still got all that talent that made her an incredible discovery in titles like Take Shelter. Though saddled with distracting prosthetics, Chastain resists the urge to just portray Faye as a one-note Saturday Night Live caricature. She fully commits to the oddball eccentricities of this person with a sense of affection. Chastain doesn't want to reduce this person to a punchline but rather get us to understand her as someone more complex. 

It's such a departure from Chastain's performances in the last decade, which have been full of either restrained confidence or subdued remorse. Given the chance to play someone much more stylized, Chastain succeeds exceptionally well in shedding her prior performances to leave viewers with a gangbusters lead turn as Tammy Faye. Also smart casting to have Vincent D'Onofrio, so experienced with playing comic book supervillains with his work on Daredevil, play real-life supervillain Jerry Falwell.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is one of those movies that leaves you satisfied in the moment but doesn't give you much to chew on after, save for Chastain's impressive work in the titular lead role. It's all perfectly decent but a person as unique as Tammy Faye deserved a movie that went the extra mile and did more to stand out.

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