The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)


Not having a blessed day.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Searchlight) Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Vincent D’Onofrio, Cherry Jones, Sam Jaeger, Fredric Lehne, Louis Cancelmi, Kimberly Hester Huffstetier, Randy Havens, Mark Wystrach, Joe Ando-Hirsch, Gabriel Olds, Coley Campany, Chandler Head, Michelle Brown Houston, Jay Huguley, Kevin J. O’Connor, Hailey Nicole Ralston. Directed by Michael Showalter

 

From time to time, a movie comes along in which a strong performance elevates it to another level. Those are good moments for a film critic. However, even more rarely, a movie comes along in which a strong performance is delivered but fails to elevate the movie beyond mediocrity. As a critic, that’s the kind of disappointment we can live without.

Tammy Faye Bakker (Chastain) grew up in International Falls, Minnesota. As a young child (Head) she was forbidden from going to church because she was a child from her mom’s (Jones) first marriage, which had ended in divorce. But her devoutness is never in question, especially after she takes her first communion wine.

Years later, while at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, she meets the charismatic young Jim Bakker (Garfield) who has big dreams. Eventually she brings him home and introduces himas her new husband to her incredulous mom. He has a dream of being a travelling preacher, saving enough to establish a church of his own. But his own spending excesses get the better of him – he had bought a convertible well out of his price range, and when he fell behind on payments, awoke one morning in a hotel room to find that his car had been repossessed.

But he is rescued when it turns out that one of the people who had seen him preach (and Tammy Faye perform with puppets) thought he’d be a natural on Pat Robertson’s (Olds) Christian Broadcast Network. Jim and Tammy Faye were naturals for TV and so they were. Jim came up with a Christian-themed Tonight show called the 700 Club and eventually it became popular enough for Jim to found a network of his own, PTL (for Praise the Lord). Tammy Faye was thrilled because she could assist in her own way, singing gospel songs and using the puppets to preach.

Their rise was meteoric. Jim made some savvy business decisions, getting a satellite to broadcast his PTL Network programming whichc extended the reach of his ministry, but he also did some inexplicably dumb things – trying to build a Christian theme park, fo example, or worse yet taking pledge money for his ministry and using it for his own private funding. The relationship between Jim and Tammy Faye eventually soured; and their marriage disintegrated about the same time as Jim’s empire did, leaving them to wonder how it could have all gone so bad so fast.

Chastain is getting some early Oscar buzz for her performance as Tammy Faye and it is well-deserved. She truly inhabits the role and while the outrageous make-up and prosthetics (giving her the prominent cheeks that Tammy Faye possessed) is a bit of a distraction, well, that IS what the woman looked like, so it can’t exactly be ignored. Chastain reminds us that under all the late night talk show jokes (some of which were entirely cruel) there was a real human being under the false eyelashes and the layered-on-with-a-brick-trowel make-up, one who actually was kind and compassionate, something uncommon among televangelists who at the time were beginning to make political forays by attacking gays, progressives and feminists with an almost hysterical distrust which persists among evangelicals to this day.

Garfield also does a strong job as Jim Bakker, although let’s face it he’s completely overshadowed by his co-star. Bakker is a little bit more aloof in a lot of ways, but then again, the movie isn’t titled The Eyes of Jim Bakker. We get a sense of his growing frustration, the stress levels as his house of cards began to tumble around him, partially masterminded by a conniving Jerry Falwell (D’Onofrio) who does not come off kindly here.

In fact, I think the most disappointing thing is that I felt kind of flat watching the movie; here we have an incredible performance by an actress which should be inspiring and enjoyable, but the movie left me almost empty inside. Perhaps because living in the South as I do, I see where this televangelist thing led, and it wasn’t to a place that I’m personally comfortable with. Many of the people who loved Tammy Faye, or more to the point, her husband, are the people who support Donald Trump, and refuse to get vaccinated now. Sort of hard not to take that one personally.

It’s a good idea for a movie and it could have done with a little more insight into the principles. Even with the strong performances, what we wind up with are largely very much what you’d expect them to have been. I think the larger picture of where televangelism has led this country specifically is a point that needed to be made. So while this is entertaining, it isn’t as deep as it makes itself out to be.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances, particularly from Chastain and Garfield.
REASONS TO AVOID: Left me feeling a bit flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and scenes of drug abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chastain performs her own vocals on Tammy Faye’s songs.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fall From Grace
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Confetti (2021)

Nomadland


This is what mesmerizing performance looks like.

(2020) Drama (SearchlightFrances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, Angela Reyes, Carl R. Hughes, Douglas G. Soul, Ryan Aquino, Bryce Bedsworth, Annette Webb, Teresa Buchanan, Karie Lynn McDermott Wilder, Gay DeForest, Patricia Grier, Makenzie Etcheverry, Rachel Bannon, Brandy Wilber, Suanne Carlson, Roxanne Bay, Sherita Deni Coker.  Directed by Chloé Zhao

 

Many people look at the Okies of the Depression, entire families who put all their belongings in their trucks and tried to find somewhere they could work and believe that those folk were a symptom of their times. What most Americans don’t know is that the economic realities of the 21st century have led to an entire new generation of rootless migrant workers, going from one seasonal job to the next, living out of their vans or in camps.

Fern (McDormand) has been hit by two catastrophes. First and foremost, her beloved husband Bo has died. To make matters worse, the gypsum mine in Empire, Nevada, where they were both employed, has shut down. Empire, being a company town, now has no work and has itself shut down. Fern has been thrown out of her company housing where she has lived for decades. She decides to gather what belongings she can fit and put them in a van where she makes herself as comfortable as possible, getting a temporary job at the Amazon Fulfillment Center for the Christmas rush. She is given free parking in a trailer park, paid for by Amazon. When the job goes away, so will the space.

She befriends a woman named Linda May (May) who urges her to attend a convocation of nomads in Arizona, to be presided over by nomad guru Bob Wells (Wells) who has garnered an impressive following with his pragmatic and imaginative videos of how to survive living out of a van. She tells the child of a close friend in Empire who asks her if she’s homeless, “Oh no, honey, I’m not homeless…I’m houseless!”

She is loathe to head out to Arizona but when finding more work proves fruitless, she changes her mid and drives down there. There she meets Dave (Strathairn), an old man who becomes sweet on her, and Swankie (Swankie), a veteran nomad who is dying of cancer and wants to see as many natural wonders as she can while she still can. Her impending fate doesn’t prevent her from remonstrating with Fern that she needs to be more pragmatic because they are in the middle of nowhere and there is nobody to help them if their van breaks down “You can die out here!”

Fern remains something of an enigma throughout the movie until near the end where we start to get the picture as to why she makes the choices that she does. McDormand, one of the most gifted actresses in the business with Oscars for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and three other nominations. This film will undoubtedly give her a fourth, as she has already won this year’s Golden Globe for the role (the movie also won the Best Motion Picture, Drama Golden Globe at the recent awards ceremony). While Fern isn’t the most talkative person ever, her eyes are often haunted, staring out in the distance, her thoughts kept to herself but her eyes betraying her melancholy. She works hard and makes due without complaining, taking what joys she can where she can – like going skinny dipping by herself in a rock-strewn river in Colorado.

The one false note that the film strikes is the relationship between Fern and Dave. There is a sweetness to Dave, but Fern isn’t having it and that would be fine, except it feels like the relationship seems to be added on just to add romantic tension. The movie doesn’t need it.

Zhao utilizes the magnificent vistas of the prairies, the Rockies and the desert Southwest, taking Fern to a variety of jobs, from working the lunch counter at Wall Drug in South Dakota (a place to which I’ve actually been and it is so much more impressive than the film shows), a beet harvester in Nebraska, and a trailer park hostess in Arizona. She finds quiet moments of peace amongst concrete dinosaurs or under the stars. And despite Dave’s sweet advances, she seems content to remain on her own.

This is a slice of life that most Americans have no idea even exists, but the movie is based on a non-fiction book by journalist Jessica Bruder. While Zhao tends to leave details out of her film, there’s no doubt that this is a perilous way of life, especially now with so may more out of work than when the movie was filmed, let alone when it takes place (approximately 2011). People who have worked hard all their lives and couldn’t quite get ahead find themselves unable to afford a place to live in, forcing the to live from gig to gig. And what happens to them when they are no longer able to drive? It isn’t a question the movie asks but it was definitely on my mind, given that most of the characters in the film or either middle aged or elderly.

There is a lyricism here, a dignity that is all the more apparent because many of the actors in the film are non-professionals; they are actual nomads who live in their own fans. They, too, live with the specter that jobs aren’t guaranteed and that despite their willingness to work, they may get somewhere, find that the job they expected was already gone, and not be able to afford the gas to get them somewhere else. Most of these people have no health care insurance, so when people like Swankie get seriously ill, their only choice is to let nature take its course.

It seems impossible to believe that Americans can live like this in the 21st century; our nation is wealthy and prosperous, or so we’re told, but that’s only if you own the business. For those who toil in those businesses and make money for the 1%, their future may not be all too different than the one Fern faces.

REASONS TO SEE: McDormand gives another in a long line of outstanding performances. Gritty and realistic examination of American economic realities. Rings true as a human story. Honest in every way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The romance between Fern and Dave seemed forced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some full-frontal nudity
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zhan interviewed several real life nomads to get some informational background for the film; some of the more articulate interviewees were given roles playing fictional versions of themselves in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Leisure Seeker
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Days of the Bagnold Summer