PG-13 for some language and some pretty crass sexual stuff at times. I also should probably mention that this movie really toes the lines between blasphemy and respect. It does show a particular form of Christianity as absolutely nuts. If you wanted to look at this movie as a "point and laugh" movie, you absolutely could. But in the weirdest way possible, there's something still respectful about faith in the light of the events. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Michael Showalter
Is it just me, or is Michael Showalter becoming a really impressive director? In my head, the guys from The State always made fun, underground films. When I think of The State, I think of David Wain as the ur-director in the midst of them. But between The Big Sick and The Eyes of Tammy Faye, perhaps it's Michael Showalter who can provide a bigger range of types of movies. While I absolutely adored The Big Sick, The Eyes of Tammy Faye might be the greatest thing he has made...and I'm a huge fan of Wet Hot American Summer.
I have often discounted movies that only really get attention from the Academy in the Best Actress category, especially if the actress is playing a real person. Often, it's a showcase to allow the leading lady show off the amazing impersonation of a real person. I'm talking mostly about Judy here. The movie tends to be weaker, but the performance is something to talk about. But even with Judy, the weakness of the film stopped me from investing in the performance. I know, I know. Renee Zellweger got the Academy Award for that performance. But The Eyes of Tammy Faye really has it all. It's a great film that kind of does something very different for me: It makes me kind of respect Tammy Faye Bakker.
I remember Tammy Faye Bakker. She was the punchline on all of the late night shows. She was what was wrong with Big Christianity. Jim Bakker wasn't anything to me, but I remember that Tammy Faye Bakker was so plastered with insane makeup that she was considered kind of a joke by mainstream society. Couple that with the fact that she would sing these over the top Christian ballads and even as a child I knew who she was. But I had always dismissed her. When Jim Bakker went off the rails amongst scandals, it was almost this odd confirmation that this branch of televangelism was a scam. Now, I'm not going to go to a place that pastes Tammy Faye Bakker as a hero. She's not a hero. But she's in no way a villain in this story and she does some things that are downright impressive. The only thing that she can be criticized for his her complete ignorance to how the world works.
I'm going to quote Smallville and Aladdin, loosely. The season one finale of Smallville had Michael Rosenbaum's Lex Luthor say something along the lines of "It's either the world views me as sinister or as incompetent" and he'd rather be seen as evil. Tammy Faye never really got to that level of self-awareness. Like Princess Jasmine in Aladdin, it's shocking how Tammy Faye Bakker didn't know how money worked, especially considering that she came from poverty. There's the story from the Bible about having the faith the size of a mustard seed. It's a spiritual teaching that really bothers me a lot, in both good and bad ways. The idea behind it is that it shouldn't take a lot of faith in God to change the way basic things work. God is so powerful and he's able to make so much change with even the smallest amount of belief that Christians, by all intents and purposes, shouldn't question when absolutely insane things happen around them. Tammy Faye Bakker, according to the film, was a person who absolutely, without-a-doubt, believed that God was all-powerful and loved her. She was mostly uneducated, but she was charismatic and devoted to her faith.
So when the world around her started to get better as she prayed, she had the faith that I sometimes wish that I had. She saw God responding to prayers and didn't question it. She grew more and more wealthy for doing things that shouldn't be paying that much. She met a guy who preached the notion of prosperity gospels, much like Joel Olsteen is doing today. In a book that stresses the value of simplicity and poverty, Jim Bakker was able to cherry pick ideas that not only justified a lavish lifestyle, but encouraged people to fight for economic success. And she believed it. She believed it because her faith was so precious to her and she fell in love with a guy whose job it was to be charismatic. If I jump back to that Lex Luthor quote, she was never evil. She just didn't know any better. This seemed natural and real. Her life changed when she found her faith, so much so that she urinated herself. Then she isolated herself in a world where faith was the norm and faith brought her happiness. Yeah, I can see where this all came from.
Yeah, that life of luxury thing was no good for Tammy Faye. But her faith the size of a mustard seed was so important to the point where she actually garnered my respect. There's an element to her where she loved being on TV. The film doesn't even try covering that up. She actively says that she wanted to be on TV. Okay, but she also didn't want to be bullied...ever. I didn't know any of this stuff, by the way. The fact that she was bullied about her faith as a child made it all that much more precious. So when her faith centered around the notion that God was love, it only made sense that it reached out to everyone. There's something that always gets a little frustrating about my faith that seems almost against my very nature. The more intellectual my faith gets, the less it feels real. My faith life and my prayer life are things I feel. Yeah, I'm going into very dodgy beliefs when it comes to Catholicism, so I'm going to tread lightly. When I pray and try talking to God, as frustrating as it gets, very little of it gets into the the intellectual stuff that I know about the Church. To me, God is love and that is such a foundation to what I believe that I can't help but admire Tammy Faye Bakker. She came across as this gay advocate, which she absolutely was. But what she actually says in the film shouldn't be all that revolutionary. She talks about loving a guy who was diagnosed HIV positive during a time when an epidemic was destroying a community. She maintained this message of love when the most powerful people in televangelism were vocally shouting fire and brimstone. It's remarkably touching.
It's a lot. The movie doesn't necessarily scream that Tammy Faye was a perfect person. She's an intensely flawed person who had an affair which she was driven to. Okay. She had a very spoiled life and was willfully sheltered. But she also wanted to do good. There's never a moment that makes her seem evil. She comes across dumb but sympathetic. And a lot of that comes down to Jessica Chastain's performance. I tend to be a little weary of biopics. They seem like vehicles for Academy Awards. But Chastain is unrecognizable in this role. It must be hell trying to give a sympathetic performance when the film forces her to act like Betty Boop the entire time. (The film's words, not mine.) Yet, she pulls it off. A lot of that goes to makeup, but the other end of that goes to commitment. Chastain is so committed to giving a nuanced performance and it really really really works. It's such a great job that I'm thinking she might get it.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a far more complex biopic than I was ready for. Considering that Showalter made, I thought it was going to be going after low-hanging fruit. Instead, this is a well-crafted and nuanced piece about a woman who wanted to be good and accidentally hurt a lot of people. It's really well done.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.