In The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a new sort-of biopic about the spouse of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker, Jessica Chastain gives us the visible-acting works. She does stuff to her voice, taking on a pinched midwestern sing-song, and does stuff to her face, using both her expressiveness and a ton of makeup—the latter used first to emulate the ritual face-slathering undertaken by her subject, and then to replicate the shifting contours of her actual face. It’s an approach that I’ve sensed may be going out of style—at least among some viewers, who are more attuned than ever to the shifty politics of “transforming” actors into shapes, sizes, and bodies (plus, in the not-especially-distant past, races and genders!) that don’t much resemble their own. It’s called acting, sure, but questions nag at these monuments to dedication and, yes, actorly ego: Must the same small pool of beautiful people be tasked with portraying the full range of humanity?
In a way, Chastain’s performance in The Eyes of Tammy Faye comes across like an accidental swan song for this immersive-impression method. Not because it’s actually going to be the last time anyone tries it, and not because it’s spectacularly awful. Chastain is, in fact, the main reason to see this slightly muddled movie, which creates the constant expectation that more is going on than meets the eye before eventually leaving us with the lingering feeling that perhaps the opposite is true. One of the best things about her performance is how thoroughly it justifies its own self-conscious stuntiness: Chastain and the movie envision Tammy Faye primarily as a performer—not a stretch, given her television series with husband Jim (Andrew Garfield) or her recording career—whose conviction comes a place of genuine need. As portrayed here, she doesn’t much have use for the abiding culture-war vileness of someone like Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) or even the avariciousness of Jim, whose spoils she supposedly partook of, discouraged to think too much about their origin as money bilked and connived away from working people. She and Jim were main characters, weren’t they? Does it make sense that they would prosper? It’s not that Tammy Faye only reaches out to the gay community with a willingness to discuss AIDS sympathetically on national television out of some attempt to court a particular demographic, but it’s easy to imagine Chastain’s character thinking of an implicit bargain between her and her audience that she not limit herself strictly to the holiest rollers.
It might take until that point, two-thirds or further into the film, to realize that while director Michael Showalter may play some scenes for laughs, he’s not out to satirize the self-righteous prosperity gospel of Jim and Tammy Faye. He’s more interested in what makes them tick—to a point. As The Eyes of Tammy Faye maneuvers through its unwieldly decades-long timeline, Showalter resorts to some tedious biographical patchwork to clear some gaps: headlines and montages and compression of scenes into quick checkpoints. Occasionally, the movie will bring out a strikingly off-center composition serving as a reminder that yes, this was shot by Mike Gioulakis, the talented cinematographer who often works with M. Night Shayamalan and David Robert Mitchell. Then it’ll revert back to docu-imitation that seems unworthy of its filmmakers’ abilities (and likely redundant with the actual documentary of the same name that it’s based on).
Yet as the movie’s too-infrequent visual flair and lack of scene-to-scene momentum fades, Chastain’s performance, with all of its tricked-out actorly neediness, lingers. In the final stretch, it’s all that’s really left, as Tammy Faye is cast out on her own, her desire to keep performing for some kind of audience more pitiable than distasteful. (When she bombs a pitch meeting with a cable channel, it’s hard not to root for her, just a little, to at least escape with her dignity.) When she’s on whatever kind of stage—which is where the movie places her in a weirdly stirring final scene—she’s testifying to her desperate love. I’m not sure The Eyes of Tammy Faye has much to say about organized religion, but it sure feels like a statement about acting, and how it can obliterate the line between faking it and the real thing.
There’s a different sort of reality performance at work in Blue Bayou, starring writer-director Justin Chon as a man caught in an immigration nightmare. Chon’s Antonio LeBlanc is Louisianan through and through, with almost no memory of Korea; he was adopted by American parents as a toddler, and has overcome a tough childhood to a dedicated partner to his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and an affectionate stepfather to Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), Kathy’s daughter from a previous marriage to Ace (Mark O’Brien). But because of an infuriating real-life loophole, Antonio’s adoptive parents’ neglect of his immigration paperwork (among other things) means that he’s in danger of deportation. Similar real-life cases run over the end credits.
It would be difficult to picture those real cases proceeding with so much fraught, movie-ready melodrama—though some of them probably are! Blue Bayou just has a peculiar way of making Antonio and Kathy’s struggles feel pervasively phony. Chon, shooting on 16mm, gives the movie a vibrant, immediate look, but so much of what it’s showing us feels acted, with scenes engineered to repeatedly reach boiling points, over and over. In all of this boiling, key details get lost, like: Are the LeBlancs lower middle class, or living in abject poverty? (There are scenes, and set dressings, that suggest both.) Why does Antonio have such a conveniently emblematic criminal-past specialty? (He’s never just stealing; he’s always “stealing motorcycles.”) How does he seemingly maintain a close friendship with an ICE agent? What happened between Ace and his daughter beyond an unspecified abandonment? Blue Bayou has some emotionally wrenching moments; its final sequence had me in tears. It also left me feeling like I’d been shoved through a bunch of acting classes to teach me a lesson. Sometimes kitchen-sink naturalism can slather it on just as thick as makeup.
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