Review: I AM CHRIS FARLEY, A Wistful, Loving Tribute To The Late Comedian
His drug overdose in 1997 came as no surprise to many, as the rumors of his drug and sex fueled escapades were widely publicized. I Am Chris Farley, directed by Brent Hodge (A Brony Tale) and Derik Murray (I Am Bruce Lee, I Am Evel Knievel) and co-produced by Kevin Farley, Chris's brother who is also a comedian, is the Farley family-approved, loving tribute rather than yet another seedy Hollywood tale about a brilliant young talent cut short by fame and fortune. But watching the film, you can't shake off the sadness expressed by everyone who knew him and loved him.
Growing up a middle child of five in a working class family in Madison, Wisconsin, headed by a very funny and gregarious salesman dad, Chris was always seeking attention and in need of audience. His outrageous pranks, like pulling his pants down and trying to draw without hands in a classroom, got him into trouble at school. But he found his calling in camp talent shows and making people laugh. With his burly physique, he played rugby in college and developed a strong tendency to be dependent on group dynamics and its camaraderie. As many of his SNL friends attests, his childlike enthusiasm and desire to please everyone around him made him very popular.
Just like many of the SNL alums, Farley started his career at the Second City, the legendary improv theater in Chicago. There he developed one of his most well known characters, Matt Foley, the Motivational Speaker based off of his college friend, who is a Catholic priest now. And Matt the priest confirms that yes, he once lived in a van down by the river. The film provides a lot of previously unseen footage of Farley's Second City acts.
I Am Chris Farley plays out like a Best of... special: his uproarious Chip & Dale audition skit alongside Patrick Swayze, Gap Girls, Matt Foley the motivational speaker, and includes many scenes from his three feature films, Tommy Boy, Black Sheep and Beverly Hills Ninja. But my all time favorite has to be the awesome Chris Farley Show where he interviews Paul McCartney. In it, Farley is super awkward and earnest asking dumb questions to the super famous, ultra cool music icon. His fellow comedians say that that was the true Chris Farley they knew, a self-deprecating, shy guy, who couldn't quite believe his own rising fame.
As Lorne Michaels says, Farley was infuriatingly talented. Perfectly paired with snarky David Spade, he got his first leading role in a big Hollywood movie, Tommy Boy. But the fame came too swiftly to Farley and brought with it much pressure. His nervous giddiness was perfectly captured in his Late Show appearance on the eve of the release of the film.
Tommy Boy is regarded as a comedy gold now with a cult status, but it was a critical failure when it came out in 1995. Its failure sent him to rehab. Movie after movie, even though they made money, Farley was always hard on himself, and relapsed every time. Many of his friends, including Spade, Sandler, Bob Saget, Bob Odenkirk, and others saw his struggle with substance abuse and wild night binges, and warned him. Saget puts it this way, "He was a very sweet guy before midnight. He was as open, like a 6-year old, as he was dark. And the darkness was compelling, but not something you'd want to be around."
I Am Chris Farley offers a more in-depth understanding of Farley's life and times, with input from those who knew him best. I still find his skits hilarious and find him one of the all time greats of all the SNL alums. But watching the film is a bittersweet experience.
I Am Chris Farley opens in New York on Friday, July 31 at AMC Empire, and on VOD on August 11.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com