Even at the height of their influence, Jim and Tammy Bakker were difficult to take seriously.
The notorious TV evangelists got famous selling that specific American Christianity that is equal parts mammon, myth and messianic misdirection.
They were eventually overwhelmed by scandal, accused of sexual misconduct and of fleecing the faithful; Jim Bakker was the problem, but Tammy Faye fell from grace alongside her husband.
She was maybe guilty of buying a stairway to heaven, but not much else.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a new film attempting to capture this particular moment and these people; directed by Michael Showalter, it is short on script and long on latex.
The pen is mightier than the FX, as we say around here.
The movie stars Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker and Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye, and actually, they are the movie. There is so little laid out in the way of context or characterization that looking at Chastain and Garfield — a happy enough pastime — is pretty much the sum total of what’s happening.
The movie begins with a flurry of fill-in-the-blanks, bits of actual footage and media coverage from the era that attempt to situate the story.
What follows is a relentless march forward, with places, times and dates — the 700 club! PTL! Palm Springs! — but it doesn’t really tell you anything about these people or what formed them.
There are glances at Tammy’s childhood as the oldest of eight children and at her relationship with her hyper-critical mother (Cherry Jones).
Then we have Jim and Tammy meeting at bible college and moving up in the ranks of evangelical preaching; a lucky break puts them in Pat Robertson’s orbit.
The Reverend super creepy Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) enters the story, permitting a scene that hints at Tammy Faye’s courage and compassion — lest we forget, the woman was adored by the millions of supporters who tuned in all through the 1970s and ‘80s to the Bakkers’ broadcasts.
The hope was that The Eyes Of Tammy Faye would reveal more about a woman who had the cojones to interview an AIDS patient and activist, pastor Steve Pieters, on an evangelical TV show in 1985.
(1985! That was right in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s Disney America, where ketchup was a vegetable and Tipper Gore was censoring rock albums!)
But the movie contains no such revelations.
Instead of showing the woman behind the curious makeup, it shows … the makeup.
Much has been made of the movie magic that transforms Jessica Chastain into her character, an hours-long effort involving wigs, facial prosthetics and the excessive, clownish face paint the real woman became known for.
That’s great, but the right screenplay would have rendered all that superfluous and permitted Chastain to just do what she does best.
The look-alike effort is a distraction.
Left to her own devices, Chastain would have had no problem transforming the audience into a crowd of true believers.
All she needed was a script.