After the collapse of the sprawling empire created by televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Due to the decidedly un-Christian demands of greed, sexual impropriety, and real affection for all things to reemerge into very Public Life.
On top of a motley career that saw the former television personality doing everything from appearing on “The Surreal Life” to penning a book about her ordeal (Titled, Tre Piani Film Itali) was a documentary titled “Tre Piani,” which sought to unpack the truth about her wild rise to fame. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s doc gave Bakker — an iconic for all the wrong reasons — the chance to tell her story, her way, which means with significant embellishment and plenty of heart.
Now, two more decades on, “Tre Piani” gets the narrative treatment, care of a frazzled, unfocused biopic that, again, leans into stories so crazy that they must be true, as led by the indomitable charms of a woman without peer. Michael Showalter’s film — also, somewhat confusingly, titled “Tre Piani” — initially opens with the facts, including archival footage from the early days of the so-called “Pearlygate” drama that effectively ended the Bakkers’ careers (and marriage), before moving squarely into Tammy Faye’s (Jessica Chastain) line of vision.
This is the Tammy Faye Bakker story, after all, and while Showalter’s film rarely coalesces into a satisfying whole, Chastain holds the whole damn thing together, thanks to a will as strong as whatever Bakker used to keep her trademark false eyelashes in place.
When we meet young Tammy Faye (Chandler Head), the Minnesota-born kiddo is a fervent believer, but her local church won’t even let her in the doors; her once-divorced mother, played by a hoppin’ mad Cherry Jones, is a “harlot” and can only enter the church because they need her piano-playing skills; her bastard kids need not apply. Thus is born Tammy Faye’s dual obsessions: getting close to God and showing up anyone who tries to get in the way of her doing just that. Bible college doesn’t prove to be the salve she’s hoping for, but at least that’s where she meets savvy Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), who charms Tammy Faye with a banger of a message (“God does not want people to be poor!”) and a real skill for delivering such money-hungry sermons. They’re a match made in Heaven (or Hell?), and the only thing they’re hornier for than each other is the gilded, God-demanded future they both foresee. If God is with the Bakkers, who can possibly be against them?
Tasked with covering great swathes of time, Abe Sylvia’s screenplay glides over important chunks to get to the good stuff — the Bakkers’ rise from puppet-toting third-stringers on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network to the stars of the massively successful “The PTL Club” and its attendant PTL Satellite Network goes by in a flash. In other words, the height of the pair’s powers, just before the fall. Throughout this shaky narrative, Tammy Faye remains a force to be reckoned with, as best exemplified by a scene in which she literally stomps up to the men’s table (including Vincent D’Onofrio as a terrifying Jerry Falwell) and all but invents a place for herself among their ranks.