Do you remember Jim Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye? Back in the ′80s, their PTL Network was a televangelist-TV sensation, with many millions of viewers and many more millions in donations from those viewers. The letters stood for “Praise the Lord.” Some said “Pay the Lady” would be more accurate. The Bakkers were called “the Ken and Barbie of televangelism.” That seems a bit unfair to Ken and Barbie.
The end of days for the Bakkers came in 1987, when it was revealed how much of those funds had gone to underwrite their lavish lifestyle. (An air-conditioned dog house? Really?) Certain personal peccadilloes on his part also came to light. Adding to the whole carnival atmosphere was Tammy Faye’s drag-queen appearance. It takes a lot for a woman to look like a female impersonator, but her cosmetological excesses more than sufficed. The title of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” nods to that aspect of her fame.
Jessica Chastain plays Tammy Faye. Here’s one definition of acting range: You star in a remake of an Ingmar Bergman miniseries, as Chastain is currently doing, in “Scenes From a Marriage,” on HBO Max; and you play Tammy Faye Bakker.
Chastain throws herself into the role. She sings. She prays. She takes Tammy Faye from 19 to her early 50s. She accumulates layers of makeup the way the ocean floor does sediment. She affects a “whiny, grating, Betty Boop voice,” as Jim puts it, and a ratchety laugh that’s part giggle, part slipped gear. There is such a thing as caricature of genius. This is just caricature. In fairness to Chastain, it’s hard to imagine a Tammy Faye performance that could get anywhere much beyond that.
Andrew Garfield, as Jim, fares even less well. The most basic appeal of acting is getting to play at dress up and alter your appearance. This Chastain gets to do with abandon. Garfield is pretty much restricted to seeming insincere and employing an Upper Midwest accent that’s even flatter than Chastain’s.
The great Cherry Jones, as Tammy Faye’s mother, is reduced to looking constantly out of sorts and saying things like “Serving God don’t feel like it should be a moneymaking opportunity.” Vincent D’Onofrio may have the even more thankless task of playing Jerry Falwell, who helped pull the plug on Jim Bakker — or double-crossed him, as the movie has it. You don’t have to be a member of the Moral Majority to think that a portrayal of Falwell consisting mostly of scowls and sirloin pomposity doesn’t quite get at who the man was.
“Eyes” is a strange undertaking. As directed by Michael Showalter (”The Big Sick”), it combines biopic, satire, and camp to no discernible purpose. It treats the Bakkers as something between grotesques and simpletons, which does rather limit the biopic angle. Satirizing televangelism is such low-hanging fruit it’s windfall. As for camp, it’s hard to avoid in a movie with Tammy Faye as its title character. You keep waiting for her to declare, “No more wire crosses!” But camp without energy or a sense of fun is like religion without faith or salvation without heaven. Yes, you’re all dressed up — Chastain sure is — but, truly, with no place to go.
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE
Directed by Michael Showalter. Written by Abe Sylvia; based on the documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Starring Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, Dedham Community, suburbs. 126 minutes. PG-13 (sexual situations, drug abuse, cosmetological atrocities).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.