Chris Farley was a particular brand of comedian, a performer known for being big, loud, over the top and utterly fearless, willing to risk life and limb for the good of the bit. His rise to fame was meteoric: from Second City to “Saturday Night Live” to movie stardom in half the time it takes most others. In many ways, his life paralleled his career; rarely did Farley turn off his manic energy, and when he wasn’t going big on the stage, he was going big at a party, battling his addiction to food, alcohol, and several other substances. The new Spike TV documentary “I Am Chris Farley” aims to parse out the bottled lightning of Farley’s performances, but in paying tribute to his successes the film fails to recognize the man beneath the myth.
Armed with interviews from a cadre of comedy legends and all the archive footage they could want, directors Brent Hodge (“A Brony Tale”) and Derik Murray (“I Am Evel Knievel,” “I Am Bruce Lee”) zip quickly through Farley’s idyllic childhood in Madison, Wisconsin — the details of which “Tommy Boy” would later be based upon. Leaning heavily on interviews with all three of Farley’s brothers — including comedian Kevin Farley — the doc highlights the siblings’ fiercely competitive battle to be the funniest in the room, and more importantly, Farley’s desire to make his father laugh, a need that would drive him throughout his life.
From the beginning Farley was fearless, a class clown who excelled on the football field and was suspended for using his penis to type with in class. It was at summer camp where Farley, along with his brothers, first took the stage. Even then his talent was obvious. He outshined everyone. At Marquette University Farley joined the rugby team and performed at a talent show with a teammate where the duo killed and Farley discovered his calling.
From there Farley’s life switched to hyper drive. When he graduated he briefly took a job with his father’s small town oil company (another inspiration for “Tommy Boy”) only to land a gig at the local improv theater in Madison. Once again he was the funniest person on stage. He quickly graduated to a theater in Chicago before joining the Second City troupe. Then Lorne Michaels came calling and Farley signed onto the cast of ‘SNL.’
Much of the film from this point is a study of Farley’s work: his physicality, his earnest desire to please everybody in the room, his endless and unequaled energy. Hodge and Murray glide deftly between interviews with Michaels, Mike Myers, Bob Odenkirk, Adam Sandler, David Spade, and many, many others who worked with or were close to Farley. While personal stories abound, the narrative follows a general sort of chronological movement, dissecting seminal scenes from his five years on the show and his brief stint in Hollywood. To hear the actors themselves marvel over Farley’s presence and performance is captivating. He was a performer unlike any other in his generation, and his peers are quick to note it.
In this way “I Am Chris Farley” is a study of a comedian, his methods, madnesses, and the lengths he’d go to for a laugh. Even a quarter century on and fashioned to fit the needs of another film, it’s hard not to crack up at these classic Farley skits, culturally ingrained and overplayed as they are. But his brilliance has never been in question. Surely Farley — assuming he could have achieved sobriety — would have amassed two lifetime’s worth of classic roles; just look at how many definitive characters he created in a handful of years. Still, more than anything else, “I Am Chris Farley” wants to allude to all that could have come next for the young star. And in doing so Farley as a human being is lost, at times presented almost as a caricature of himself (a line that is surely fine, given Farley’s nature). Farley’s pull towards alcohol is highlighted early in the film’s running, but falls away nearly completely. When it does return it’s so late that he is already relapsing after a rehab stint never mentioned.
On a technical level “I Am Chris Farley” is competently accomplished, neither reinventing the documentary wheel nor failing to efficiently convey the narrative at hand. The editing by J.R. Mackie is sharp, stringing the myriad interviews into a fluid, dynamic story, allowing Farley’s performances and his friends and family to speak to his character in equal measure. The score might be the most rote aspect of the film. The music is relentless, pulsing and twanging over every frame, hoping to wring emotions and tension from scenes empty of them.
The life of Chris Farley is one of excess, as is noted neatly near the film’s close; excess love, excess laughter, excess food, excess drink, excess everything. When it comes to celebrities, Farley truly was larger than life. He was a complex man: deeply Catholic, fiercely friendly, hysterically funny, and painfully tortured. It is important that his gift, his ability to make so many people happy, to make them laugh, not be forgotten. But Chris Farley deserves a film that can see him for his gifts and his flaws. So, while “I Am Chris Farley” is an interesting portrait of a comedian, here’s to holding out for something more. [C+]