Mysterious Ways: A new film examines the rise and fall of Tammy Faye Bakker

Tammy Faye Messner, and her douchebag former husband Jim, were a total freak show, a fraudster clown act that stands as a prime example of ugly ’80s underbelly greed and out of control televangelist morons.

Making a movie about Tammy Faye and her creepy husband is no easy trick. Fall From Grace (1990) featured douchebag Kevin Spacey as douchebag Jim, and the angelic Bernadette Peters as Tammy Faye. Despite the star power, it was a middling affair, and the story has always been ripe for a retelling. 

Alas, telling their story in an entertaining and truthful way that appeals to the moviegoing masses is quite the challenge. Thankfully, director Michael Showalter is up to that challenge with The Eyes of Tammy Faye, featuring a marvelous Jessica Chastain in the title role. 

There’s one big problem going into this movie: It’s only a little over two hours, and this really needed to be a miniseries. There are many years, layers and chapters to the Bakker tragicomedy, and one movie couldn’t possibly cover it all. This is an abridged telling of the car crash that was their multiple scandals.

The film starts in the ’50s, with a young Tammy Faye eager to attend church with her mother, Rachel (an outstanding Cherry Jones), and father, Fred (Frederic Lehne). It’s in these short opening scenes where Jones establishes her character as a hard ass who really is just looking for an excuse to be nice and happy. Many actresses could’ve turned this part into something bitter and stoic, but Jones gives Rachel serious depth. Jones delivers a master class in reserved line delivery and effective facial expressions. 

When Chastain steps in as an older Tammy going to Bible college where she soon meets Jim (Andrew Garfield), she brings multiple dimensions to a person that got reduced to a bit of a clown mess joke by the media up until her death in 2007. Honestly, after watching what Chastain does with Tammy Faye in this movie, watching the real Tammy Faye in old news clips and interviews (like her live interview with Jim on Nightline, recreated in the film) feels a bit different. There was a real, sometimes sweet person under all of that makeup. 

Yes, she was partially responsible for a despicable swindle involving the Bakker ministry, which included the Heritage USA Bible Disneyland and a massive TV network. But she was also a gay advocate/icon, as well as a passionate singer. She made up for some of her misdeeds, and this movie does a solid job of showing us some of her redemptive qualities. 

Chastain captures all of the Tammy Faye mannerisms (and, yes, the caked-on makeup) in a way that feels less like caricature and impersonation, and more like channeling the flawed, blindingly optimistic individual. Her Tammy Faye gives the real-life counterpart a bit of dignity to go with the comical flamboyance. She also nails the Tammy Faye singing voice with many musical moments. 

Garfield conveys the bland, unimpressive, fake personality of Jim Bakker quite well. He does an excellent job capturing a very boring loser. His is the less showy performance, but I’ve seen a lot of Jim Bakker over the years, and Garfield nails his total lack of charisma. Still boggles the mind how this troll siphoned millions of dollars out of all those bank accounts. Oh, wait. No, it doesn’t. There are a lot of idiots in the world.

The movie glosses over the Jessica Hahn affair and doesn’t cover much after the scandal and the Bakkers’ eventual divorce. While the focus is on Tammy here, it would’ve been interesting to see a little bit of Jim’s post-jail life pushing apocalypse food sold in buckets. This bastard is still getting people to donate millions to his fake causes. Again…there are a lot of idiots in this world, and Jim Bakker is one of their kings.

Additional supporting cast includes Vincent D’Onofrio as Jerry Falwell, the Darth Vader of the scumbag televangelist world. D’Onofrio disappears into the guise of the ultimate TV religion villain, to the point where the actor is no longer recognizable. Let’s hope extended time playing this awful human being didn’t have an adverse effect on his pancreas. 

Credit Showalter for making this a sometimes awkward and unpleasant experience because that’s actually what it should be. You’ll cringe more than you will laugh, but that’s what you are going to do when you watch a credible depiction of the depths the Bakkers fell to. Chastain giving Tammy Faye a true, big heart makes the ugly parts go down a little easier.  

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