The Eyes of Tammy Faye

The Eyes of Tammy Faye, 2021, 4 stars

The Eyes  have it

Chastain is Oscar-worthy as Tammy Faye

Image copyright Searchlight Pictures

Exclusive to MeierMovies, September 26, 2021

One of the most difficult tasks a filmmaker can undertake is to bring humanity and understanding to a real-life character whom the audience dislikes.

Case in point: Tammy Faye Bakker, the clown-like yet strikingly heartfelt former wife of preacher-turned-prisoner-turned-doomsday-proselytizer Jim Bakker. But thanks to surprisingly assured direction by Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), brilliantly realized makeup and prosthetics by Justin Raleigh and Brian Wade (just two among a talented crew of craftspeople), a wonderful turn by Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker and the performance of the year (and her career) by Jessica Chastain in the title role, we’re left with a Tammy that is both a physical replica and a complete reimagining, at least in the eyes of this agnostic-atheist.

Part biopic, part dramedy and (small) part documentary – it is, after all, based on an identically titled doc from 2000 by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato – Eyes isn’t so much an eye-opener as an eye-refocuser, allowing us to set aside the tabloids, which chewed up and spat out the Bakkers (somewhat deservedly) back in the late 1980s, and instead focus on the real people, or at least a slightly Hollywoodized version. And to its credit, and our satisfaction, it does so with panache and humor while never sinking to a Bakker burlesque. The film even brings new understanding, if not respect, to Pat Robertson (Gabriel Emerson Olds). But as for Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) – well, let’s just say it takes a real piece of work to come off looking this much worse than his fellow farcical players in the shit show that was late 20th-century American televangelism.

Except for one gut-wrenching, Elia Kazan-like scene between Tammy and Jim, the film never reaches quite deeply enough into the minds of its characters. In addition, the relationships between Tammy and her stepfather (Fredric Lehne), siblings and children are never fully explored. Instead, the movie focuses almost exclusively on her connections with Jim and her mother (Cherry Jones). But the shortcomings of Abe Sylvia’s screenplay are overwhelmed by Chastain, who is an absolute force of nature and, come March, destined to take home a golden statuette to match her character’s greasepaint.

I’ve said it often recently and I’ll say it again: The movie industry’s obsession with making us suffer through “important issues” has reached an all-time high, just when what we need most is escapism. Even superhero films have turned unrelentingly serious, violent and apocalyptic. To quote Bill Maher for the umpteenth time, “In 2021, if you’re at the movies and wondering which one is the bad guy, it’s you.”

That’s what is ultimately so refreshing about Eyes. Though it still manages to be “about something,” it is less concerned with changing our mind about fundamentalist Christianity, or LGBT rights or even Tammy Faye herself. Instead, above all else, it seeks to entertain. And it does a good enough job to land itself on the list of best films of the year. Praise the Lord.

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For more information on the movie, visit IMDB and Wikipedia.