Arriving a few short months after Brett Morgen’s “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” and Asif Kapadia’s “Amy,” Derik Murray and Brent Hodge’s “I Am Chris Farley” is the summer’s third documentary study of a gifted entertainer who self-destructed in the prime of life. Of the three, it’s by far the most upbeat, which is both logical (a film about one of the most immediately lovable comic talents of the last two decades shouldn’t be totally dour) and strangely off-putting, as Farley’s story seems to be a sadder and more complicated one than the filmmakers appear fully comfortable exploring. Worth watching for its trove of emotional testimonies from family and friends — including an atypically forthcoming Lorne Michaels and Adam Sandler — the pic is somewhat defanged by its surface-level approach and standard-issue filmmaking style, making for an earnest yet incomplete portrait that should gather some buzz on VOD and the Spike network after a brief theatrical run.
Farley died of a drug overdose at the age of 33, just as he was completing his transition from a sterling five-year run on “Saturday Night Live” to a full-speed film career. That was 18 years ago, and it’s striking to see just how shaken so many of his former colleagues still seem by his death. In interviews, “SNL” vets Sandler, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd and David Spade profess genuine, almost uncomprehending awe of his comedic energy; Tom Arnold repeatedly appears to choke up; and Bob Odenkirk becomes visibly upset when recalling his former Second City castmate’s recurring bouts with substance abuse.
The film certainly addresses Farley’s struggles, but there’s an often palpable tension between the mournful tone of so many of the interviews and the breezier, more celebratory vibe that the directors seem to be seeking. It’s clear enough that Farley suffered from self-esteem issues and an overeagerness to please, but it’s sometimes hard to square Farley the generous, well-loved, devout Catholic with Farley the out-of-control cautionary tale who died alone in his apartment after more than a dozen stints in rehab. Of course, the horrors of addiction defy rational explanation — and unlike the Cobain and Winehouse documentaries, “I Am Chris Farley” mercifully spares us from having to watch any actual footage of its subject’s lowest moments — but when a teary-eyed Bob Saget notes that “success in showbusiness does not always create the best version of people,” one wishes he’d been allowed to elaborate a bit more.
The film does much better outlining Farley’s early rise, and interviews with his four siblings (particularly Kevin Farley, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his brother) introduce us to a natural-born performer from a happy, comedy-obsessed Wisconsin home. Previously unseen video clips from his early improv days show a raw talent almost overflowing with enthusiasm, and his former teachers and college rugby teammates testify to his willingness to do just about anything for a laugh.
The comic’s “SNL” days naturally take up most of the film, and while his signature sketches have been replayed hundreds of times over the years, the doc nonetheless finds a few fresh angles. Odenkirk, Spade and Christina Applegate trace the progression of Farley’s motivational-speaker character Matt Foley from its Second City roots through to broadcast, and the unveiling of Foley’s real-life namesake is charmingly played. In a revealing anecdote, “SNL” chief Michaels recalls trying to explain to the unrestrained Farley that Chevy Chase used to find ways to break his falls during slapstick sketches; Farley, on the other hand, preferred to simply fling himself headlong across the stage and deal with the consequences later.
Farley’s castmates offer plenty of commentary on the peculiarities of his performing style, though it might have been beneficial for an outside voice to help contextualize his legacy. His anarchic, borderline absurdist physical comedy was so broad and childlike it was often mistaken for simple juvenilia, and film critics largely missed the boat on “Tommy Boy,” which has aged considerably better than the dismissive reviews it received. (Farley, often insecure about his performances, took the criticism quite hard.)
On a technical level, the film hews closely to the standard talking-head docu format, though the deployment of whimsical stock music over just about every scene can be oddly arbitrary and sloppy.