“His commitment was total.”
Some of the most difficult deaths to mourn are those of people who made us laugh the hardest. It’s unnatural to associate them with sadness or to think of them in the past tense, because as is normally the case, they were so wholly there in the present. I Am Chris Farley marginalizes the power of the dearly departed, seemingly attempting to make the legendary comedy icon into a destructively mythic genius. He is not Chris Farley anymore. The title contains the wrong version of “to be” with its use of “am.” He was Chris Farley, obviously prior to his untimely death, but more so to the person he was before addiction ended his life. I Am Chris Farley is a revisiting, or an introduction, based on your prior experience watching him perform. And through interviews, mostly lighthearted and fondly remembered, we find a common sense of guilt and regret. The saddest part is not that he died; it’s that his passing wasn’t a surprise.
Farley’s life is told slowly and methodically, testing the waters and refusing to wade deeper and farther once it hits the weeds and can no longer touch. It’s a bit of a disservice to praise his work while ignoring to emphasize just how much he struggled on a personal day-to-day basis. To its credit, I Am Chris Farley shares with us the details of his youth. We hear from parents, friends and family. The central voice belongs to his brother Kevin, and watching him perform stand-up on stage is like seeing a ghost. Chris grew up in Madison, Wisconsin to a good family in a nice Catholic home. His love for comedy and movies and performing was clear early on, and he had a natural pining – an appetite and avidity – for the center of attention. Making others laugh was his gift, and he wanted to share it with the world. As we’re told by an interviewee, Farley wanted to be the biggest star on the planet. And then his star exploded.
What’s missing here is the key link to connect his literally larger than life self and the creeping insecurities that followed him to his grave. We’re told through interviews, and briefly shown through old footage, that Chris had a natural bashfulness to him. He wanted the spotlight but not the carry-on luggage that came with it. Directed by Brent Hodge and Derik Murray, the movie has no real technical strengths, instead settling for an in memorium final product that feels like a public broadcast production, and by that I mean somewhat undersourced and underfunded. This is Murray’s fifth documentary he has executive produced about a lost legendary figure. Strangely, they all start the same. I Am…(Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, Evel Knievel, Dale Earnhardt) and now Chris Farley. How can a movie about such a memorable entertainer lack so much identity? Maybe because it was made with a cookie cutter.
I Am Chris Farley is a candlelight vigil that operates on the hope that maybe, somehow and someway, Chris really isn’t gone. SNL’s general Lorne Michaels was a father figure to Chris in his newfound New York stardom, calling the young man he once groomed, “infuriatingly talented.” If only these filmmakers worked under the fact that he is gone now and was gone then. I’d rather recall the ending of Tommy Boy, a film mirroring his own life and Farley’s best -and most revealing- performance. Doing so, we can know for certain that the man, our friend, the one we laughed at and with, had set sail never to return to port. To look back on that final scene now is a haunting, hilarious, and disquieting experience. I Am Chris Farley is insightful yet far too respectful, and proves to lack all of the qualities that made our tragic hero so joyfully lovable. Even in death he can make an average movie likable. That’s just how good he was.
“He never said no.”
Rating: 3 out of 5