Eyes are said to be the window to the soul, but the heavily festooned ones in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" are more like a window to the movie's lack of soul.
Presumably, the biopic wants us to understand what made Minnesota-reared evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker (played by Jessica Chastain) tick, but the makeup dooms it from the start. Her eyes are the first thing we see, in close-up, as she explains that her looks can't change much since her makeup is tattooed on. Bakker's actual makeup was a lot, but it's exaggerated so much in "Eyes" that it makes the movie feel cartoonish. Along with distractingly jiggly cheek prosthetics, Chastain appears to be starring in a sequel to the Eddie Murphy comedy "Norbit."
"Eyes" seems to be arguing that eye shadow was an addiction for Bakker, who also was hooked on prescription drugs, and that it functioned in a similar way — the more she used, the more she thought she needed. That's an interesting notion but all that goop undermines Chastain's not-bad performance, since she's constantly upstaged by her own eyelashes. (Andrew Garfield, as first husband Jim Bakker, also wears fake cheeks that suggest he's storing up food for winter.)
Abe Sylvia's screenplay doesn't help much. Although the scenes can't avoid the pitfalls of trying to cram the highlights of a life into two hours, they do play well. However, they lack insight into what made the late Tammy Faye tick.
It's a sympathetic portrait of the International Falls native, whom the movie insists was so sincere and compassionate that she was fated to be taken advantage of. But there's no drama in a script that essentially says its oft-misunderstood subject was exactly who she said she was. Also, tone is an issue, with director Michael Showalter's attitude veering all over the place, from earnest to near-parody.
The best scenes in "Eyes" are the early ones, before Bakker starts getting gussied up to praise Jesus with husband Jim. They meet at a Minneapolis school that was then called North Central Bible College.
Cherry Jones provides a blast of realness as Bakker's devout mother, Rachel, who tells her daughter, "Little girls go to hell for lying. Honest and true." Rachel could come off like a gorgon, but her warmth and decency assure us she's looking out for her daughter, even as she bemoans her excesses or ominously questions the private jets and gourmet meals the Bakkers enjoy when they achieve TV fame.
The movie concludes with the last years of Bakker's life, in which she achieved some happiness while also becoming a gay icon because of her campy looks and efforts to draw attention to the AIDS crisis. It's a worthy finale but it feels rushed, given that there's probably enough material in Bakker's short, eventful life (she died at 65 in 2007) for a miniseries.
Or maybe we don't need one. An insightful documentary in 2000 did a much better job of covering Bakker.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
The Eyes of Tammy Faye
⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: PG-13 for sex and drug use.
Theater: Wide release.