When a figure embodies an archetype as fully as Chris Farley, they make for a difficult documentary subject. The sad man who made other people happy, the drug addict who kept his innocence, the superstar who remained humble: all of these are seeming contradictions that had hardened into clichés long before Farley’s 1997 death. Brent Hodge and Derik Murray’s I Am Chris Farley doesn’t quite acknowledge these tropes; instead, their documentary places Farley’s life and work comfortably within them.
The film, which airs tonight on Spike TV and will be available via DVD, iTunes, and on-demand tomorrow, takes an approach that will be familiar to readers of Farley’s 2008 oral biography. The comedian’s younger brother Kevin, rather than his older brother Tom, Jr., serves as Hodge and Murray’s protagonist, emphasizing his resemblance to Chris while — it’s heavily implied — carrying on his legacy as a stand-up. But like The Chris Farley Show, I Am Chris Farley narrates the SNL star’s life chronologically, relying on testimony from his siblings and former co-stars.
Farley’s Wisconsin childhood, his brothers and sister tell us, was almost absurdly idyllic, filled with Catholic school pranks, summers at camp, and in one home video, an actual white picket fence. Unlike The Chris Farley Show, however, I Am Chris Farley glosses over his father’s own issues with weight and alcoholism in favor of depicting a benevolent patriarch who took an active role in his children’s upbringing. Both portraits can, of course, be true, but it’s one of many lost opportunities for nuance in transplanting Farley’s story from page to screen.
After college at Marquette, where he joined the rugby team and continued to acquire a reputation as both a hard partier and a natural entertainer, Farley got his start in earnest at Second City, where he received his training from legendary improv guru Del Close. It was at Second City where Farley met future SNL peers like Bob Odenkirk and Mike Myers, who provide some of I Am Chris Farley‘s most affecting testimony, along with frequent collaborators Adam Sandler and David Spade.
It’s Spade and Odenkirk who manage to add some texture to I Am Chris Farley‘s almost uncannily smooth narrative. Throughout the documentary, Farley is frequently described in the quasi-saintly terms reserved for artists who died young: he had a “kind, gentle, childish, innocent heart”; he exhibited “a kind of innocence”; he had “purity.” Only testimonies like that of Spade, described as the “ultimately jaded” counterpart to Farley’s “ultimately innocent” (there’s the I-word again!), keep I Am Chris Farley from turning utterly patronizing.
Farley’s Tommy Boy co-star allows himself to be openly resentful when discussing his friend’s ineptitude for writing sketches, something that’s virtually unheard of in SNL‘s long history of writer-performers. His description of Farley’s lone attempt, a 14-page clunker called “Puppy Lawyer,” is welcome amid overlong tributes to Farley classics like the Chippendales dance or Matt Foley (a character named after one of Farley’s lifelong friends, now a Catholic priest). Spade’s jealousy — “He didn’t write or read or really do anything… but he was funny, and that was important!” — humanizes both himself and Farley more than other interview subject’s unambiguous praise.
Odenkirk, for his part, is refreshingly candid about Farley’s addiction to food, drugs, and alcohol, the gory details of which are airbrushed from the documentary. While mostly framed as a tragic consequence of Farley’s larger-than-life persona, the former SNL writer’s take is harsher: “With Chris, there’s a limit to how wonderful it is to me. And that limit is when you kill yourself with drugs and alcohol. That’s when it stops being so fucking magical.” It’s hard not to hear this as a shot at fawning documentaries as well as a testament to addiction’s human costs.
Oddly, what might be I Am Chris Farley‘s central weakness also serves to make one of its central points. Despite scores of interview subjects, actual footage of Farley is surprisingly scarce; in between lengthy analyses of the Chippendales sketch and generous interpretations of Tommy Boy‘s legacy, it becomes clear how disproportionate Farley’s cultural impact was to the length of his career. One Letterman appearance provides the whole of I Am Chris Farley‘s talk show material, and as one of only two starring roles in a feature, Tommy Boy makes up the vast majority of its film cutaways. This is bad news for the documentary, which inevitably spreads its source material far too thin. But for Chris Farley, it’s a testament to the enduring appeal of a mere decade in the industry.