I may have only been a child when Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were at the height of their popularity in the 1980s, but like pretty much everyone else, I was well aware of who they were and the controversy that arose around their PTL church. As a result of my young age though, I largely remembered them as being punchlines, Tammy Faye in particular, with her arguably over-the-top make-up, lived on as comedy fodder for years after the couple’s fall from grace. Based on the documentary of the same name, this biopic by director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick, Wet Hot American Summer) left me with a greater understanding of the real person behind the cosmetics, and at least a little guilty about how we as a culture treated her.
Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) grew up poor in Minnesota, and wasn’t allowed to attend church services with the rest of her family as she was the product of divorce. She would still manage to sneak in and, either because of or despite, that restriction fell in love with the church. At the state’s North Central Bible College she meets Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), who shares some of her slightly more modern ideas about religion, and the two quickly fall in love and get married, which also means they have to leave the school. So they decide to head on the road to spread the teachings of the Bible via sermons and puppet shows, which leads to them getting noticed by Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. There they create a children’s show called Jim and Tammy and found the long-running program The 700 Club. Robertson however, doesn’t give them the respect they feel they deserve, so they head out to create their own television empire and launch The PTL Club (Praise The Lord), which eventually became it’s own satellite television network, allowed them to build a Christian theme park called Heritage USA, and afforded them a very lavish lifestyle. But of course, what goes up must come down, as anyone who was alive in the late 80s will recall.
This is a pretty fascinating story to follow, with a host of interesting and influential figures moving throughout, all of it awash in gaudy 80s excesses. And yet the movie itself feels oddly ordinary and occasionally even a little slow. Showalter’s direction is largely lacking the sort of glitzy panache that this specific tale seems to be demanding, aside from the clever staging of the concert that closes out the film. If more scenes had that kind of creative energy behind them, this might have been one of the better movies of the year. Garfield does good work as Jim Bakker, but Chastain shines here, vacuuming up all the attention in every scene and making the movie worth a watch almost entirely on her own. All in all it’s a merely decent movie, buoyed by an absolutely stellar performance in the title role. ★★★
Available on DVD at the library and for digital rental / purchase.
Rated PG-13 for sexual content and drug abuse.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor