New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: ARE THE BAKKERS WORTHY OF OUR PITY IN “THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE”?

Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield give incredibly accomplished performances in the new biopic THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE. It’s no mean feat, considering that the characters they are playing – disgraced televangelists Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker – became virtual caricatures decades ago by way of their over-the-top religious program, the multitude of scandals that tarnished their name, and their obliviousness. No matter, Chastain and Garfield turn these two into three-dimensional protagonists, rendering them believably, making them likable, even pitiable. But do the Bakkers deserve our pity?

The two were awful in so many ways, from their naked greed to their extravagant lifestyle to even their awful sense of showmanship. (Their PTL SHOW was laughably bad.) Nonetheless, the film can’t decide whether it wants to condemn or forgive them. The story cascades back and forth between the ridiculous and the maudlin. We’re asked to snicker at these two blithe spirits and their cornball ministry, but then tear up during their fall from grace in the public eye.

The film struggles with what to tell and not tell in the story too. A lot of time is spent laying out the Bakkers’ backstory with a good half-hour devoted to Tammy’s childhood, her teen years under the thumb of her domineering mother (Cherry Jones), and the early years of marriage to Jim as they performed as revival tent preachers. But before you know it, they’re on television and creating a ministry that becomes a multi-million-dollar dynasty. Then, the story sets them up for the fall. Not enough is made of their shift from enjoying the spoils to spoiling it all with greed and lust.

To that point, where is Jessica Hahn in this telling? She was the church secretary who gained notoriety by sleeping with the cheating Jim and accepting his bribery check to keep it all hush-hush. Hahn isn’t even a character in this dramatization even though she cemented the Bakkers’ ruin. She’s relegated to a few quick video clips, but the film fails to dramatize Jim’s pivotal tryst with her.

The screenplay by Abe Sylvia, based on the 2000 documentary THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE, misses such essential moments, preferring to gloss over far too much of Jim Bakker’s vileness. He was an adulterer who cheated on Tammy with both sexes and he stole millions from the show’s donations, but the film doesn’t show nearly enough of his avarice. Instead, Reverend Jerry Falwell is portrayed as the main baddie here, played as an utterly loathsome stiff by a mannered Vincent D’Onofrio.

Fortunately, Chastain and Bakker are never so broad, playing things straight even when director Michael Showalter pushes things to the edge of parody. He milks Tammy’s misguided attempts to incorporate disco into the show like it’s a cardinal sin, and some of the music cues throughout would be more suited for a black comedy biopic like I, TONYA.

Garfield is terrific, even at Bakker’s worst, and Chastain is a marvel too. She plays wildly against type and yet succeeds on every level. She’s funny, sings like a lark, and distances herself from all the tough cookies she’s played in the likes of ZERO DARK THIRTY, MOLLY’S GAME, and AVA. Kudos too to the makeup artists for never overdoing the Bakker prosthetics.  The players don’t get lost under the cacophony of period wigs and fake jowls.

If only the POV of the story wasn’t lost so easily. It’s all over the map emotionally and it never really gets a bead on why the Bakkers danced so demonstrably with the devil. Are we to pity such scoundrels? I’m not sure, but then the film isn’t either. 

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