“We realize perfectly well that all the characters that we play are really subsets of ourselves. They’re just ourselves in slightly different moods, ourselves carrying a little more emotional freight,” states Chris Farley’s mentor at Second City, Del Close, in the documentary I Am Chris Farley. This is, in essence, the best way to sum up the brilliance behind most every sketch Farley ever performed on Saturday Night Live.
Directed by Brent Hodge, CEO of Hodgee Films, and Derik Murray, founder of Network Entertainment (which produced the film), I Am Chris Farley takes a straightforward, no frills approach to recounting the life of one of the most respected, yet tragic comedians of the twentieth century. Opening with a brief montage of those close to him commenting on his genius, Hodge and Murray then cut to one of Farley’s more famous interviews with David Letterman, who asks, “You’re from Madison, Wisconsin, right?” This sets the stage for his brother, Kevin Farley, an actor/comedian in his own right, to drive by their childhood home and talk a bit about what it was like growing up with Chris as the middle child in a setting that was “like Americana everyone dreams or thinks of in the 1960s.”
From there, Farley quickly grew into his boisterous, fun-loving personality as part of the high school football team, theater performances at Red Arrow camp and, later, rugby player while attending Marquette University. His ability to jibe with any type of group made him an immediate candidate for the sort of famous person who could appeal to the masses. After college, it was clear he was “unemployable,” just as his most beloved character, Tommy Callahan in Tommy Boy, and so he went to work for his father at his oil company. Soon, however, his thirst for channeling his energy into something manifested in joining the Ark Improv Theater in Madison. He eventually moved to Chicago and began working at the prestigious Second City.
It was there that he fine-tuned his knack for physical comedy, schooled at the same time with future fellow SNL actors like Mike Meyers, who, like everyone else, has only glowing remarks to say about his talent and gentle, childlike demeanor. In fact, Hodge and Murray’s succinct presentation of Farley’s life is in direct opposition to what one would expect of a documentary about the troubled actor. Rather than a slow build to Farley’s rapid decline, I Am Chris Farley maintains a steady pace that delicately alludes to Farley’s drug overdose in 1997. And this is what distinguishes the film as an honest and endearing portrait of one of the most complex comedians in American pop culture: it is simple and warm-hearted, like the man himself.