'I Am Chris Farley'
Chris Farley wasn’t just a comedian. He was a force of nature. He had the face of a cartoon, the stature of a bear, the physicality of a dancer, and the heart of a child. And yet, within a decade of Farley bursting onto the stage and screens of all sizes, he was dead. He’s a tragic man and an uplifting comedian with a fascinating life story to tell. Now that story has been told in a definitive documentary. Well, most of it anyway.
Co-directors Brent Hodge and Derik Murray begin their film with a long half-hour exploration of Farley’s life before comedy. You can’t blame them given what a lovable tale it is. The loudest child in a large family with siblings battling for attention, Chris was a class clown and athlete whose worst behaviour (like using his penis in typing class) tended to get laughs out of his parents rather than derision. He was the Bluto party monster in college that you’d imagine and also the star athlete you wouldn’t necessarily guess.
As the filmmakers and their subjects (including a childhood buddy named, you guessed it, Matt Foley) bend over backwards to exclaim, Chris was one of those people you couldn’t help but love. He brought a big dopey grin to the face of anyone who entered his orbit. From the moment he first hit the stage in a summer camp production, it was clear that the entertainment industry held his future.
As amusing as all the childhood tales of a young Chris Farley are, the movie really takes off once it focuses on his comedy career. Seemingly everyone close to Farley pops up for an interview – from Adam Sandler, Lorne Michaels and David Spade, to Bob Saget, Tom Arnold (a close friend and confidant) and Bob Odenkirk (who started in Second City with Chris and wrote his famous motivational speaker sketch). Farley clearly touched their lives like few others, and they dive into old memories with vivid recollections that feel like they could have come from the day before. Every major Farley ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch and film role gets broken down to beat-by-beat stories like Tom Arnold recalling how Farley called him in a panic unsure if he should strip bare alongside Patrick Swayze, or Dan Aykroyd describing the puppy-dog enthusiasm with which Farley pried John Belushi stories out of him on the set of ‘Tommy Boy’.
Even better are the backstage stories, like Farley jumping naked into a shower with Mike Myers or falling onto the sidewalk at full force alongside Adam Sandler purely to entertain New York bystanders. As much as Farley’s performances tickled viewers and his contemporaries, knowing Chris privately was where the biggest and richest laughs came.
The filmmakers as well as Farley’s family and friends paint a touching portrait of a man-child who seemed to effortlessly entertain, yet was always desperate to be liked. All the people closest to Chris share a paternal or maternal sense of protection, as if they still feel sensitive about hurting the comedian’s feelings and still try to steer him toward the right path. That message and those stories are as hilarious and touching as one could ever hope a Chris Farley doc might achieve.
The trouble is that Chris’ story has a very dark ending and presumably many dark chapters leading up to it that the filmmakers and participants seem a little scared to discuss. Obviously, his death is covered, and many of the faces in the film communicate their deep regret and eternal sadness. Yet, aside from briefly mentioning Farley’s “addictions” and his 17 trips to rehab, there’s very little discussion of the self-destructive behavior that lead to his demise. After lingering on every fruitful childhood memory and famous ‘SNL’ sketch, the documentary rushes across the finish line right when it should get more interesting.
That’s not to say that ‘I Am Chris Farley’ needed to be filled with salacious details and punishing darkness. No, that material always should have been handled sensitively and subtly. However, Brent Hodge and Derik Murray barely touch on it at all, just glossing over the surface of the inner darkness beneath the joyous clown. As a result, the movie feels incomplete, as if this is the first half of a larger project on Farley that saved all of his demons for the second movie. It’s a shame, because that ultimately hurts ‘I Am Chris Farley’ and makes it a far less interesting documentary than it could have been.
Still, as a love letter to one of the greatest physical comedians who ever lived, the movie remains a joy. It’s filled with stories about Chris Farley that should have been told years ago and makes clear that there are even more tales to tell. Hopefully, someday someone will make a warts-and-all Chris Farley documentary that gets into all the details that this doc is scared to touch. For now, this joyous celebration of all things Farley will do.