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Carrying a 'Toon 

The Eyes of Tammy Faye struggles to humanize its complex central character.

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When Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato made their 2000 documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Tammy Faye Messner—still better known to the world as Tammy Faye Bakker—was a cartoon. She was the squeaky-voiced, mascara-caked punching bag of 1980s late-night monologues and SNL skits, caught up in the sexual and financial scandals that engulfed her then-husband Jim Bakker and their televangelist ministry. As much as we all love the schadenfreude involved in watching seeming hypocrites fall, Bailey and Barbato wanted to humanize Tammy Faye and make it clear that she was nothing of the sort—that she was, in fact, a uniquely humane figure in a milieu generally dominated by smugly judgmental Bible-thumpers.

In theory, that's the same goal director Michael Showalter and screenwriter Abe Sylvia have in mind for this dramatized version of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, but they've given themselves a much harder job. Where Bailey and Barbato were able to feature the real Tammy Faye and explore the person she was in her post-limelight life, and get playful with gimmicks like chapter titles read by sock puppets, Showalter and Sylvia trap themselves in the structures of a prestige biographical drama. And it's not one that does the premise any favors.

From a brief prologue set in the 1990s, the narrative quickly flashes back to the 1950s childhood of Tammy Faye in Minnesota, desperately trying to be part of her family's Christian church as the daughter of a divorced-and-remarried mother (Cherry Jones). At Bible college, Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) meets young, ambitious Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), and the two quickly marry and hit the road as traveling preachers. But Jim has a vision for bringing the Gospel to mass audiences, ultimately establishing the PTL Network in the 1970s, which rapidly turns into a mega-business including the Heritage, U.S.A. amusement park and a satellite-powered 24-hour broadcasting empire.

Not surprisingly, the narrative addresses the twin scandals that toppled the Bakkers—Jim's affair/hush-money relationship with Jessica Hahn, and Jim's eventual fraud conviction for misusing donated funds—as well as the back-door takeover of PTL by Jerry Falwell (Vincent D'Onofrio), but the filmmakers find the most interesting avenues for exploration in material that the documentary didn't include. In particular, there's an emphasis on Jim's role as an early-adapter in preaching the "prosperity Gospel" connecting material wealth and holiness, as well as a subplot involving Tammy Faye's own near-affair with a record producer. Both cases offer an opportunity for making the character study richer, in terms of attempting to understand whether Tammy Faye got caught up in the Bakkers' celebrity in a way that pulled her away from her faith.

But there's a basic problem here, one that the documentary didn't have to contend with: making Jim Bakker a character as central as Tammy Faye. Garfield's performance feels slightly off somehow, although that could easily be a function of the many questions about him—including allegations about gay affairs, and to what extent he was being deliberately fraudulent in his financial dealings—the film isn't going to offer answers for by virtue of presenting everything from Tammy Faye's point of view. It feels like a performance built less on creating an actual character than on delivering a serviceable imitation of the guy we saw on TV.

As for Chastain's Tammy Faye, there's a lot more depth and nuance there, even as the narrative has to make its way through difficult-to-dramatize material like her addiction to Ativan (while somehow completely ignoring the story of how she tried to open the door of a plane while it was in flight). The earliest and latest scenes provide the strongest performance moments—the pre-celebrity Tammy Faye's infectious enthusiasm suggesting Chastain's perky character from The Help, and the post-Jim Tammy Faye trying to pitch ideas to a reality-TV producer that convey her almost compulsive need to minister to people. Yet it's still a challenge for this interpretation of Tammy Faye to capture her complexity, beyond a few token mentions of her more loving view of gay people, because we have to spend time on marital fights that could have been pulled from a hundred other movies. We're far enough removed from peak Tammy Faye mockery that it's easier now for her to be more than a cartoon; this Eyes of Tammy Faye still needed to work harder to maker her more than just another conventional biopic subject.

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