For those who came of age in the ‘90s, Chris Farley is the closest thing to John Belushi that they will ever experience. He was a live wire; an entertainment phenomenon that exploded and flamed out before our very eyes. Brent Hodge and Derik Murray’s new documentary, I Am Chris Farley, tries to illuminate his meteoric rise and fall, as well as to understand his delicate psyche. Mostly, it’s another chance to re-live some of Farley’s best bits, which is just enough to recommend this otherwise disappointing chat-fest.
Chris Farley was born craving the spotlight. Friends and family recount tales of a young Wisconsinite who was determined to entertain everyone around him. Photos and archival footage of his early performances reveal a fearless artist who was willing to do anything to make people laugh, regardless of the physical or emotional toll. He was a “perfect storm of comedy,” according to his first stage director. From his anonymous beginnings at the ARK Improvisational Theatre in Madison, through a stint with Second City in Chicago, and, finally, to his breakout chance on Saturday Night Live, Farley was always the star of the show. Already-established performers like Mike Myers and Jon Lovitz recognized his genius and willingly ceded the spotlight to him. No one could stop Chris Farley.
Except, of course, Chris Farley.
His voracious appetite for affirmation and attention was rivaled only by his appetite for food, booze, and drugs. The word ‘moderation’ simply wasn’t in his vocabulary. As his good friend Tom Arnold jokingly advised, “You can’t be fat and a junkie… you’ve got to choose one!” Though he made an astounding 17 trips through drug rehab, Farley never kicked his habit, dying of a drug overdose at the age of 33.
Hodge and Murray go back to the beginning to find the roots of Farley’s genius and subsequent demise. Brothers Kevin and John speak of the heated competition for their father’s approval. Though Chris always won the day, it was never enough. Extensive interviews with professional associates and close friends reveal a man who never liked himself. It’s hard to reconcile Farley’s immense talent with his persistent insecurity. To the filmmakers, it’s clear that Farley never stopped being that little boy who was desperate for approval.
Despite some wonderful anecdotes and recollections from television luminaries like Adam Sandler, Bob Odenkirk, and Lorne Michaels, we don’t get much hard-hitting insight into Farley. He was a devout Catholic who never stopped believing in the goodness of mankind. Morbidly shy around girls, Farley resorted to sophomoric displays to impress them, even after he was famous. He loved sports, and excelled at rugby and football. And he was very, very funny. That’s the sum total of what we learn about Farley, most of which could have been related in a more concise, entertaining fashion.
It also hurts that Farley was not an introspective man. All we have is one manic interview with David Letterman that the filmmakers replay to the point of tediousness. It’s no surprise that we don’t get much from the man who referred to his own style as “Fatty fall down,” but surely there must have been more interview footage of a mega-star like Farley. It feels a bit lazy and slapdash, as though Hodge and Murray didn’t have the means (or desire) to buy the broadcast rights to other interviews.
The interview subjects, in general, are knowledgeable and helpful. SNL mastermind Lorne Michaels brings years of dealing with problematic geniuses to the table, while Bob Saget and frequent collaborator, David Spade, bring more emotional perspectives. Mostly they gush about Farley’s obvious talent, his kind spirit, and his penchant for excess. There is also the baffling Lorri Bagley; a former model who became Farley’s lover after meeting him on a movie set. Bagley, with her baby-doll voice and penetrating eyes, is a refreshingly bizarre change of pace from the litany of polished talking heads.
Because there is so little actual content in I Am Chris Farley, the filmmakers struggle when trying to establish tone and mood. Often, they resort to heavy-handed musical cues when it’s time to feel sad. It’s also a questionable choice to use Kevin Farley’s stand-up comedy routine when it so prominently features bits about Chris (“I look the most like him, right?”) It gives the uneasy feeling, fair or unfair, that Kevin (an executive producer on the film) is using this as a platform to further his career.
Seeing the iconic motivational speaker, Matt Foley, germinate in stock footage from Second City is a magical experience. It’s like watching a performer practice in front of a mirror, only the mirror is an audience paralyzed by laughter. The clips from SNL are still as funny as they were 20 years ago. Even the snippets from Farley’s movies, all of which were uniformly dreadful, flash his comedic genius. It’s ironic that the same natural enthusiasm and charisma that helped to elevate his films also help to elevate this lackluster documentary about his life.
I Am Chris Farley is only modestly successful at illuminating its star, but that star shines brightly enough on its own. Re-live the joy of experiencing this force of nature, and learn what it was like from people directly in the storm’s path. Those are the things that make this a worthwhile watch. It’s a party thrown to celebrate a man who never felt worthy of the celebration.
I Am Chris Farley is playing in select theaters and debuts on Spike network August 10th.