Arriving as one of the marquee titles and major world premieres at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, there’s plenty of hype around Thee Eyes of Tammy Faye. And it very much should put Chastain in awards consideration for her big and admirably gaudy turn. Tammy Faye was never a woman that even her most ardent fans would describe as subtle, and from the way Chastain embraces the television personality’s sing-songy Betty Boop voice to how she actually sings many of Tammy Faye’s kitschy Christian ballads, the actress relishes this showcase of her talents. In fact, she may never have been better than in this stunning character creation.
So if the movie, which Chastain is also a producer on, is designed to get her back on the awards circuit, then it’s likely already received its benediction. She’s fabulous. However, as an actual viewing experience, I couldn’t escape the overall disappointment that stems from Tammy Faye refusing to dive deeper into its world than the surface level. Director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) offers some token gestures toward exploring the sordid laissez-faire attitudes of big business Christianity in America, yet just as Tammy Faye avoids looking too closely into Jim’s business dealings, the film itself mostly turns a blind eye to the darker shadows behind all this Sunday morning sunshine.
The one exception in this regard is how D’Onofrio’s Jerry Falwell Sr. is depicted. Since he’s the closest thing the movie has to a heavy—and indeed, the hypocrisy of the megachurch Southern Baptist flinching at the greed of another preacher is thick—D’Onofrio is free to lean into the character’s arrogance and self-importance. His scenes come off a little like a mob movie set a Richmond country club.
Which is not to say the whole film needed to vilify or crucify this world. Rather it simply would’ve been better served by having a strong opinion one way or another on such larger than life personalities. The Eyes of Tammy Faye has plenty of time to weep for Tammy’s heartbreak as she realizes her husband will not touch her, and admire her relatively progressive positions on social issues. But it also wants to revel in the extensiveness of the mountains of makeup the film slowly submerges Chastain beneath, even beginning the movie with the actress at her most concealed before jumping backward in time. The attempts to have it both ways, to be a love letter biopic and also court some laughs like the more risky and successful I, Tonya, causes the film’s tears for Tammy Faye to seem a little forced.
What we’re therefore left with is a strikingly familiar prestige product out of the Dewey Cox playbook (even if Tammy Faye’s singing hymns instead of “At Fulsome Prison”), complete with estranged paternal relationships and glittering montages through the years. For an ostensibly serious movie standing before us with something to preach about God and the people who follow Him, it’s surprising how thin its platitudes actually play.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 12. It opens in U.S. theaters on Sept. 17.