Anecdote #1: Chris Farley made a habit of pouncing on Mike Myers — at the same exact time each week — during the early- to mid-1990s era in which the two starred on Saturday Night Live. The elfin Myers deliberately took showers at a fixed, quiet time, but each week, Farley would ambush him, fully clothed, overweight but vigorously athletic, pinning him to the ground.
#2: Lacking book smarts, and determined to prove himself to the predominantly Harvard-educated SNL writing staff, Farley once submitted a fourteen-page sketch called “Puppy Lawyer.” It bombed so completely that he never wrote a skit again.
#3: SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels beckoned Farley away from the Tommy Boy shoot to appear in an episode, then infuriated Farley by only casting him in bit parts. In retaliation, Farley hilariously sabotaged a throwaway Adam Sandler–centered sketch, donning a ridiculous footlong red beard and hamming up his two bland lines with a rafter-shaking roar. Due to either his clout or just plain lovability, Farley got away with this behavior, even though Michaels fired 1986 cast member Damon Wayans on the spot for a similar aberrance.
If you have read the two lengthy oral histories that encapsulate many classic Farley moments — Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Live From New York, and The Chris Farley Show, co-written by Farley’s brother Tom — or watched any SNL retrospective or listened to any interview with Farley’s former colleagues, then these three stories constitute just about all the new info to be gleaned from I Am Chris Farley.
It’s not that directors Brent Hodge and Derik Murray lack heart. It’s a given that any tribute to this outwardly fearless yet inwardly plagued showman — who died from longtime drug and alcohol abuse in December 1997, at the age of 33 — would brim with tenderness and remorse. But shrewder documentarians would have balanced out the sentiment with grit. The movie is saccharine. The tone is set from the get-go by that lazy, obsequious title — it sounds like some bogus self-help seminar that one of Farley’s characters would have smashed to smithereens. (Be warned: Murray has already given us I Am Dale Earnhardt, I Am Evel Knievel, I Am Steve McQueen, and I Am Bruce Lee.)
Farley’s two finest sketches perfectly exhibit his yin and yang. As Matt Foley, the motivational speaker, he wears a skintight plaid suit that forces him into a hunch, his light hair slicked back with a soup bowl’s worth of pomade, as he lambasts two mildly rebellious teenagers he’s purporting to help. The skit — as would, to Farley’s growing chagrin, become a continuing pattern at SNL — culminates in his flopping through a table. (Unlike Chevy Chase, Farley didn’t break his falls.) In the second sketch, “The Chris Farley Show,” a stuttering, soft-spoken Farley asks uncomfortable celebrities dumbfoundingly general questions — and is then woefully, if endearingly, unprepared for their answers (“Hey Paul, r-remember when you were in the Beatles?” “Yes.” “That was awesome!”).
Intimidating, bellowing, body-slamming, desperate for a laugh, yet sweet, hard on himself, repentant (Farley was a proud Catholic). He grabbed men unwarned; he ran through the halls naked; he mooned women; he even, legend has it, defecated outside a high-rise NBC window. Yet much like his idol John Belushi — who also, as noted here and elsewhere, died at 33 — his talent and good intentions usually won out over the wildness.
Most of us knew about Farley’s clashing personas going in. Yet Hodge and Murray appear content to merely present the basic highs and lows of his life, with little expansion. This is a curious disappointment. The filmmakers would appear to have had hours, and hoards of cash, at their disposal. They likely read or watched the copious accounts of their subject’s life. They got the notoriously press-shy Sandler, plus Dan Aykroyd and Bob Odenkirk (who helped Farley develop the Matt Foley skit), to pour their hearts out on camera. They assembled a handful of relatives who knew Farley before he was famous — and who, presumably, hadn’t exhausted every memory of him in those oral histories. And what is the result? A couple of amusing stories, lots of sappy music, and Bob Saget breaking down.
Even when they have enviable access to rare video clips — such as exercises from Farley’s mid-1980s acting classes at Chicago’s Second City — Hodge and Murray allow their interviewees’ all-too-familiar if heartfelt reflections to drown out the content. Farley’s battles with addiction are analyzed in sub–Behind the Music fashion; we are told how sad and scary the drugs rendered him, but not given any insight as to how years of functional drinking gave way to freebasing cocaine and heroin.
There are other omissions. Though the chapter here on Farley’s post-SNL career setbacks is plenty poignant, it leaves out a heartbreaking incident that has, to date, only been marginally discussed and that warrants elaboration: Farley’s being offered the title role in The Cable Guy, then planned to be a lighthearted comedy, only to be replaced at the zero hour with a suddenly edgy Jim Carrey.
Furthermore, none of the notable people who weren’t as tolerant of Farley’s backstage antics are on hand. Jim Downey, the head SNL writer during Farley’s era, often scolded or pranked Farley to the point of tears. Former cast member Julia Sweeney — and several former female writers — have publicly lamented how the sophisticated humor on the show rapidly declined upon Farley’s ascent. Also absent are other contemporaries who, love Farley or hate him, might have thrown a little vinegar onto this pastry of a film.
That said, there are a few moments examining the friendly antagonism between Farley and co-star/best pal David Spade, but simply watching their banter in Tommy Boy makes that dynamic clear.
Farley was a gentle soul, and the film won’t let you forget it. He wanted to please everybody and he was stung by even slight criticism. But even he might excoriate these filmmakers for digging so shallow.
I Am Chris Farley
Directed by Brent Hodge and Derik Murray
Opens July 31, AMC Empire 25