Producers: Jessica Chastain, Kelly Carmichael, Rachel Shane and Gigi Pritzker  Director: Michael Showalter   Screenplay: Abe Sylvia   Cast: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio, Fredric Lehne, Gabriel Olds, Louis Cancelmi, Sam Jaeger, Mark Wystrach, Randy Havens and Chandler Head   Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

Grade: B

Michael Showalter’s docu-dramedy about the rise and fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the televangelist couple whose PTL (Praise the Lord) network raked in dough until rocked by scandal in the mid-eighties, makes for a superficial but entertaining take on the roots of the sort of hucksterism that still characterizes the faith business on TV.  And the fact that it offers two standout performances by Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield makes it all the more fun. 

Inspired by the 2000 documentary with the same title by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbain, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” also shares with it a considerable amount of sympathy for the female half of the duo, from whose perspective it’s told.  It starts with a prologue featuring the young Tammy Faye (Chandler Head) going against the wishes of her stern mother Rachel (Cherry Jones) to literally crash a meeting of a little Minnesota Pentecostal assembly to shout her wish to be saved and immediately begin babbling in tongues when the screaming preacher lets her sip the wine.

Cut to a Minneapolis Bible College a few years later, when Tammy Faye (now Chastain) meets fellow student Bakker (Garfield, about whose background we learn little) when their teacher asks him to give a practice sermon to the class.  His energetic spiel about the prosperity Gospel earns him a sour response from the professor and other students, but Tammy Faye responds with giggly enthusiasm, earning her a rebuke from the grim teacher for wearing makeup like a Jezebel. 

Picnicking on the quad afterward, the two are instantly smitten with each other, and swiftly show up at the house Momma Rachel shares with Tammy Faye’s affably low-key stepdad (Fredric Lehne) to announce they’re married and—per school policy—have left the campus.

Now adrift, they strike out in a new car they can’t afford as travelling preachers, with Tammy Faye’s cute puppets proving particularly popular with the kids.  Though they can’t even make their car payments, they serendipitously luck into jobs with the ministry of superstar Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), becoming part of the original 700 Club.  But soon they branch off on their own to found the PTL operation, which Jim grows into a colossus by shady financial maneuvering an overextending their resources.  Tammy Faye is his flamboyant on-screen partner and loves the opulence of their mansion, but is, apparently, not directly involved in the mismanagement of the assets brought in by their televised appeals, broadcast around the globe by an innovative satellite system.

She also proves an assertive figure in a male-dominated world, often expressing views out of the fundamentalist mainstream, as when she brings a gay man suffering from AIDS (Randy Havens) on for an interview and tearfully commiserates with him.  Her actions irritate power brokers like the priggishly puritanical Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). 

In the midst of their rise to the status of popular celebrities, beloved by many and ridiculed by others, the marriage falls apart.  Curiously, the scandal surrounding Jim and Jessica Hahn isn’t mentioned here—she doesn’t even appear in Abe Sylvia’s script; rather Tammy Faye is appalled by his cavorting with aide Richard Fletcher (Louis Cancelmi).  He, however, is totally unforgiving of her infidelity with her record producer (Mark Wystrach).  Eventually they reconcile, but only as their empire crumbles and so-called friends like Falwell swoop in like vultures to feast on the remains.  A rushed final reel recounts Jim’s conviction and incarceration and Tammy Faye’s post-PTL life, ending with a hallucinatory depiction of a supposedly triumphant concert she was invited to give at Oral Roberts University. 

It would be easy to dismiss “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” as a live-action cartoon, and the performances of Chastain and Garfield, enhanced by the heavy makeup, criticized as little more than very good impressions.  But while it might come across rather like a big-screen version of one of Ryan Murphy’s mini-series based on real-life, it does touch on trends in the modern American religion business that are far from inconsequential and offer some poignancy and even sadness along with the humor, and the stars are far too capable to descend into mere caricature.  Exceptional work from Jones and D’Onofrio are added bonuses. 

The picture also looks great.  The glitz of the PTL operation and gaudy glamour of Tammy Faye are conveyed in Laura Fox’s production design and Mitchell Travers’ costumes, and Michael Gioulakis’ cinematography adds sheen to the images.  While there are stutters in Sylvia’s script and Showalter’s direction (one gets the feeling that this might have worked better as one of those Murphy mini-series), the editing by Mary Jo Markey and Andrew Weisblum, employing archival materials in montages, does a reasonably good job of papering over the glitches, and Theodore Shapiro’s music does its job without being overbearing about it. 

So while far from the hard-hitting exposé the PTL story probably deserves, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” buoyed by Chastain and Garfield, is a mostly engaging account of Jim and Tammy Faye’s fleecing of some gullible sheep.