I Am Chris Farley Dir. Brent Hodge, Derik Murray

[Virgil Films; 2015]

Styles: tribute documentary
Others: Second City: The First Family of Comedy, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

For a generation of fans, myself included, Chris Farley was both comedy and tragedy. At his best, in the beginning, he was bighearted, wild, and earnest. (It’s been 20 years, and I still can’t get over his flaming car sales pitch in Tommy Boy.) At his worst, toward the end, he became a caricature of himself: large, loud, and manic. Yet even then, he was funny. So there’s no doubt he’s a deserving documentary subject. But I Am Chris Farley doesn’t do him justice. The movie suffers from the same weaknesses — predictable yet haphazard, exuberant yet superficial — that marred the end of Farley’s career.

The general-consensus narrative about Farley’s rise and fall is one of a nice Midwestern boy with natural-born talent who was a victim of excess. Fast fame exacerbated longstanding issues of appetite (food, alcohol, drugs). Eventually, Farley’s vulnerabilities overtook him, and he died of a drug overdose in 1997. I Am Chris Farley rehashes this narrative, beginning with Farley’s wholesome childhood in Madison, Wisconsin, and tracing his ascent from local theater to Chicago’s Second City to “Saturday Night Live” and finally to Hollywood. But as the chronology unspools, it also becomes loose, managing to feel both predetermined and disorganized.

This is in large part because of the sheer number of voices telling Farley’s story. If his legacy is to be measured by the roster of talent gathered, it is certainly formidable. We hear from Lorne Michaels, David Spade, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd, Bob Odenkirk, Adam Sandler — the list goes on and on. (Though I, for one, was happy to see the totally underappreciated Jon Lovitz.) These interviews comprise the bulk of the movie, and though they are endearing, they are also repetitive: Farley was unparalleled, a one-of-a-kind talent, and he was kind to boot. As their thoughts pile up, they read less as a reflection of Farley’s genius and more as a lack of direction.

Farley’s siblings also contribute, especially his brother Kevin (who also serves as an executive producer). But rather than providing intimate insight, their interviews feel protective. They gush about their brother’s early athletic prowess — the secret to his physical comedy — and tell funny family stories about his schoolboy antics. But they skim the surface when it comes to his self-destruction. We hear little in the way of why he may have struggled so fiercely or how it felt to watch him lose control. Given that Farley can’t speak for himself, it’s understandable that his family and friends would want to portray him in the best light. But anyone familiar with his work doesn’t need to be convinced of his greatness.

The thing is, Farley told his own story. His boyish charm and dynamism were on full display in his classic Saturday Night Live characters — the wannabe Chippendale dancer, the Gap girl, and of course, motivational speaker, Matt Foley. And as time passed, we also witnessed his descent — the weight gain, the drug use, the shame about both. It’s all right there, plainly visible to the audience, because Farley was an open book. That’s what made him so damn good in the first place.

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