As the new documentary I Am Chris Farley eloquently illustrates, the late comedian’s legacy will always be tethered to television, and rightfully so — sketches like “The Chris Farley Show” and “Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker” live in the annals of SNL history and will keep Farley on late night’s Mount Rushmore.
The doc, co-directed by Brent Hodge and Derik Murray and arriving in theaters today, traces the late comedian’s journey from goofball kid to timid college performer to Chicago sketch king to SNL icon. But even though I Am Chris Farley is made with an abundance of love and affection for its subject, it still pays Farley’s film work short shrift.
The film includes testimonials from everybody you would want to hear from on the subject of Farley’s life and work, including his brother Kevin, former girlfriend Lorri Bagley, SNL producer Lorne Michaels, and a cavalcade of former collaborators and friends: David Spade, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Bob Odenkirk, Molly Shannon, Jon Lovitz, and Bob Saget all contribute. The story they tell is one of a people pleaser who conquered the Groundlings and then slayed at Saturday Night Live, primarily on the back of high-energy characters and an undeniable charisma.
But when the time comes to talk about Farley’s films, the cast totally sells him short — a common, accepted opinion when it comes to the performer’s latter-day career. They rightfully herald Tommy Boy as the definitive entry in his filmography, but everybody (including producer Michaels) dismisses Black Sheep, which was always treated as Tommy Boy redux but actually possesses its own unique charms and is far funnier than it is given credit for.
While neither Beverly Hills Ninja nor Almost Heroes are quality flicks, Farley’s energetic enthusiasm and generous spirit elevate what is otherwise middling material. Just as contemporary Jim Carrey did, Farley approached every role with unparalleled physical commitment, and his enthusiasm for his own work was remarkably infectious. So whether he was playing the bus driver in Billy Madison or trying desperately to carry Beverly Hills Ninja, you couldn’t help but root for him.
I Am Chris Farley does point out his underrated role as Ronnie in Coneheads. He’s a winning, earnest romantic lead in an otherwise unwatchable film, and it’s a turn that hints at the depth lurking beneath the slapstick. When he passed away in 1998, Farley’s name was attached to a pair of projects that could have helped elevate him from court jester to cinematic prince: a biopic of portly silent-film star Fatty Arbuckle that was a long-dreamed-of passion project, and a somewhat cursed adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces that Harold Ramis had originally dreamed up for John Belushi. Those unmade titles are two great what-ifs from a performer who, according to I Am Chris Farley, simply loved everything — people, comedy, food, drugs — too much. So while the Chippendales sketch will live forever, Chris Farley also deserves a pat on the back for dragging otherwise dead in the water flicks behind him like some sort of comedy Sisyphus.
I Am Chris Farley, in theaters today, premieres on Aug. 10 at 9 p.m. on Spike.