Movie review: Jessica Chastain shines in ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’

This year, at Oscar time, Academy members may ask, “what deserves an award more, a magnetic performance in a strong film or a magical portrayal in a movie that struggles?”

Jessica Chastain may prompt this question as voters consider her breathtaking recreation of an iconic televangelist in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” The actress rings true in every moment of a confused (and confusing) film that can’t decide whether to have fun with this lady’s life or seriously examine the demons she tries to overcome. As frustrating as the movie may be, Chastain makes us want to learn more about this fascinating woman than the film can deliver.

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Film Summary: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Content: Medium. The ups and downs of a legendary life are captured in a film that can't seem to decide what story to tell.
Entertainment: High. Thanks to a fearless performance from Jessica Chastain, the movie is more entertaining than it may deserve to be.
Message: Medium. The moral of the narrative gets lost when filmmaker Michael Showalter lets the film veer from serious investigation to exaggerated parody.
Relevance: High. Any opportunity to experience such a magnetic performance is always relevant.
Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. Anyone who remembers this iconic celebrity from the 1980s will have plenty to talk about.

Like many biopics, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” begins with a look inside a complex relationship between a girl and a domineering mother (beautifully played by Cherry Jones). We immediately sense the sensitive Tammy Faye Messner will take to heart any suggestion that she must apologize for who she is and what she says. Fast forward to the college years when Tammy Faye meets the engaging Jim Bakker who quickly becomes her husband and, like her mother, prompts her to worry that she may disappoint. Together they strategize how to make the most of their charismatic personalities in the growing entertainment sector of evangelist television. The Bakkers soon find themselves at the top of a lucrative throne where they become self-appointed royalty.

In biopics, the fall from grace only works if the rise feels authentic. And that’s where “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” falters. At one moment, filmmaker Michael Showalter seems committed to realistically study this woman’s highs and lows (as in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” or “Judy”) before letting the characters and situations exaggerate into parody (as with “I, Tonya” and “Amelia”). Rather than develop a clear point of view, he switches between positioning Tammy as a victim and a villain while husband Jim emerges as a threat and a trustworthy partner. Instead of fully exploring the conditions that contribute to the Bakker’s success and failure, Showalter treats such figures as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as cameos in the background. And, because the film doesn’t know what it’s trying to say, we’re never certain what we’re watching. Is this comedy or drama? Tribute or investigation?

Through the confusion, however, Chastain rings true in as layered and shaded a portrayal as she has delivered. Convincingly aging over decades, the actress submerges her natural personality into the shadows of a woman trying to convince the world she believes in the journey she creates. In scene after scene, Chastain rises above the material to let us inside a woman so haunted by what people see that she struggles to see herself in a mirror. The actress magically captures the mystery and the meaning of a life always filled with hope.

At Oscar time, how will Academy voters consider “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”? Hopefully, they will look beyond the movie to remember the performance.

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” runs 2 hours and 6 minutes. It is rated PG-13 for “sexual content and drug abuse” but is not a family film. The film is playing in theaters.