Review: Hallelujah! Jessica Chastain fills 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye' with Oscar-worthy spirit

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One of the Ten Commandments states, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Considering her knockout, praise-all-her-glory performance in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” however, it’s going to be tough not to worship at the altar of Jessica Chastain throughout this Oscar season.

Directed by Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick”), the biopic (★★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday) is definitely worth several hallelujahs as it follows the rise and fall of televangelist couple Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. They created the world’s largest religious broadcasting network in the 1970s and ’80s and had it all undone by shady business dealings, sex scandals and conniving, powerful peers.

Entertaining and surprisingly funny given the subject matter, the movie’s also an exquisitely acted affair paced by Chastain (who also produces), turning in a career-best effort as the complex Tammy Faye. With the actress’s caring touch, the TV personality and LGBTQ icon is treated with respect as a flawed but loving woman rather than the tabloid laughingstock with over-the-top eyelashes and clownish makeup some might remember.

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Jessica Chastain stars as televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in the biopic "The Eyes of Tammy Faye."
Jessica Chastain stars as televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in the biopic "The Eyes of Tammy Faye."

The film follows Tammy Faye’s upbringing in Minnesota, charting her path from a 10-year-old believer (Chandler Head) discouraged from attending church because she was a child of divorce to the devout chipmunk-cheeked young woman (Chastain) who falls for awkwardly charismatic Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) at a Midwestern bible college. They quickly get married – much to the chagrin of Tammy Faye’s mom (Cherry Jones) – and head out on the road as traveling preachers, where they meet the influential Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) and gain a TV following: Tammy Faye entertains kids with her signature puppet show, while Jim hosts the Johnny Carson-inspired talk show “The 700 Club.”

The Bakkers strike out on their own with the Praise The Lord network, which becomes a massive moneymaking venture that puts the couple on the radar of ultra-conservative holy man Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). PTL becomes a giant in the TV space, so much so that the Bakkers dream up the Heritage USA theme park as part of their sprawling real estate ventures. However, it’s a house of cards that behind the scenes grows downright Shakespearean: Jim’s increasingly stressed out and jealous of Tammy Faye’s popularity, Tammy resents being sidelined and ignored by Falwell and his misogynistic ilk, plus her advocacy for AIDS and HIV patients angers Falwell, whose anti-homosexuality, anti-liberal agenda is increasing in importance within the Republican party at the time.

“Tammy Faye” definitely serves up its title character as a peach in the middle of a bunch of bad apples: “Faith isn’t political,” Tammy Faye tells Falwell at a soiree, and it’s a potent line that says volumes in modern times where politics has become a religion for many Americans. But there’s also a humorous, naughty side that the film brings out in its main couple, especially in the beginning when Jim and Tammy Faye engage their prurient interests as hormonally charged youngsters. The film refreshingly treats them as human beings and not one-dimensional puritanical stereotypes.

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Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) gives a joyful noise while Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) looks on with his cat in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye."
Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) gives a joyful noise while Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) looks on with his cat in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye."

An immediate best actress contender (if not front-runner), Chastain lends an exuberance to Tammy Faye that’s infectious – even as she sings peppy gospel numbers in glittery ’80s wear. And as the character’s faith is tested in various ways and an Ativan problem arises alongside her Diet Coke addiction, the actress is transformed as well with gaudier makeup and wardrobe the more she struggles internally and her world falls apart.

Garfield is a great scene partner for her, with the character arc of a man who has a hard time fending off temptations. Jones is wonderful as Tammy Faye’s adorably grumpy albeit wise and caring mother, as is D’Onofrio as the villainous Falwell, a hate-filled contrast to the caring Tammy Faye.

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is a cautionary tale, a redemption story and a throwback that feels particularly resonant as the country wrestles with the separation of church and state, all with a heavenly Chastain at her finest.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Eyes of Tammy Faye' review: Jessica Chastain shines as televangelist