The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


I Am Chris Farley

The sad legacy of Chris Farley's career is that he had great success, yet never really got to show the full spectrum of his talents. We'll never know what would have happened had he not left us so tragically young. If he could have broken out of what he himself described as cheap “fatty fall down” humor – and there's every indication that he had sufficient range to – he might have ranked among the all-time great screen comedians. It's easy to be sad about Farley's drug-related death and the work it prevented us from seeing. The documentary I Am Chris Farley doesn't have a lot of room for sadness, though. This is a celebratory film that serves to remind viewers of the joyful figure he was, in spite of his own demons.

Directors Brent Hodge and Derik Murray assemble the people closest to Farley to tell the story of how a naturally funny, attention-seeking boy from Madison, Wisconsin went on to become a major star. His family members, including brothers Kevin and John, talk about his youthful antics, which were often fueled by a desire to attract the notice of girls. Former Second City colleagues like Bob Odenkirk reflect on the boundless energy Farley had onstage when he got a little older and joined their ranks. (There's some great archival footage of early performances.) It was at the famed theater where he developed and perfected his most popular character, motivational speaker Matt Foley. It becomes clear that performing was something Farley did both on and off stage. All the interview subjects agree that he enjoyed making people laugh, no matter what the environment.

Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, and Jon Lovitz appear to discuss Farley's time on Saturday Night Live. They recall the nervousness he felt being asked to participate in what went on to become a defining sketch in his career. Playing a Chippendale's wannabe, Farley was required to take the stage shirtless and dance alongside Patrick Swayze. His sensitive side worried about being ridiculed for his weight; his comic side knew it would get a laugh, which it did. That bit also made him a star. Fellow SNL vets, including Molly Shannon, express admiration for this sort of anything-for-a-laugh attitude.

I Am Chris Farley very effectively conveys the frame of mind one surely would need to possess in order to climb the comedy ladder, not the least of which is total commitment to a character or concept. That can also have a downside, though, when a comedian does something so well that he/she becomes typecast. Pals Tom Arnold and Bob Saget testify that Farley confided in them about his professional insecurities. Best friend/co-star David Spade, meanwhile, recounts being forced to try capturing lightning in a bottle twice with Black Sheep, their ill-fated follow-up to the box office hit Tommy Boy. Neither of them were satisfied with the result. It's safe to say Farley's next starring vehicle, the slapstick flop Beverly Hills Ninja, wasn't entirely his favorite to make, either.

Much of Farley's comedy was inspired by his life. (Tommy Boy, for instance, has more biographical details than one might expect, several of which are explored here.) I Am Chris Farley underlines this fact meaningfully. At his best – as Matt Foley, Tommy Callahan, or himself in the very much drawn-from-real-life “Chris Farley Show” sketches – the comedian exuded a kind of joyful innocence. He was big, loud, lovable, and earnest, even if sometimes misguided. He was not the kind of comic who is “too hip for the room.” Farley understood what it was like to want approval or to be a bit of an outcast. His humor spoke to people for that very reason.

The events that led to his death come into play only in the final fifteen minutes of the documentary. Myers and Sandler talk about urging him to get help for his drug problems, while Spade remembers sensing that his friend was on a collision course with disaster. Some may perceive that I Am Chris Farley doesn't probe deeply enough into the demons that killed its subject, but those things have already been extensively documented, most notably in the excellent book The Chris Farley Show by Tom Farley, Jr. and Tanner Colby. The beauty of the film is that it remembers Chris Farley the way those who loved him most remember him: as a big-hearted, eager to please guy who knew he was capable of greatness, yet couldn't quite overcome the obstacles that landed in his path.

Perhaps the most insightful interviews come from two elder statesmen of SNL: Dan Aykroyd and Lorne Michaels. Aykroyd, who watched success and addiction take a fatal toll on cohort John Belushi, offers perspective on the pressures Farley certainly felt upon hitting it big and subsequently being pigeonholed. Michaels, meanwhile, speaks more emotionally about Farley than he's ever publicly spoken about anything. He suggests that wanting to make people laugh is a double-edged sword, because you run the risk of trying so hard to make others happy that you can forget to extend yourself the same courtesy.

I Am Chris Farley strips away the tabloid details without sacrificing the sense of loss comedy fans continue to feel to this day. It's a loving tribute to a great talent who, like too many before him, left us way too soon.

( 1/2 out of four)

Note: I Am Chris Farley opens in theaters July 31, and comes to VOD on August 11.

I Am Chris Farley is unrated, but contains language and adult subject matter. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.

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