How do you emulate the abrupt life of a rising comedic voice of an entire generation as a self-contained, film narrative? When it comes to Chris Farley, the former SNL alumnus whose life was cut tragically short in late 1997 due to a self-induced drug overdose, the question is impossibly opaque and morally complicated. What right do we as mere spectators have to pass judgment on someone who was as influential, necessary, and therefore indispensible to an entire generation of sketch comedians as Farley was? The characters that Farley strove to create, whether they were recurring or not, and even if they were featured only within a single ten-second segment on Lorne Michaels’ long-running late night program, were timeless and remarkably heartfelt.

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

In the new documentary I Am Chris Farley from filmmaker Brent Hodge, Farley is the film’s narrative subject, though its focus appears oddly circumspect and roundabout in regards to coming to terms with the heart and soul that its featured star reportedly wore on his sleeve. Farley couldn’t play a joke just for laughs, even as each and every line uttered by him proved blisteringly funny and gut busting in turn. His was a talent that resided within his very being and personal history. Everything about his existential bearing was up for grabs when it came to making the audience laugh.

As Hodge and his cast of talking heads make clear throughout I Am Chris Farley, Farley was self-deprecating and abrasive towards himself to a fault. In such recurring sketches as “The Chris Farley Show,” Farley clearly thought of himself as being stupid and clumsy, his supposed lack of critical thinking skills and obvious surplus girth used by the actor to get a rise out of his fans. But Farley wasn’t stupid, and although he was fat, his weight wasn’t what made him funny. Farley was someone that you knew you could trust as a human being innately, his roles on television and in film remarkable for their honesty and tenderhearted sincerity.

Recently, a video was released online featuring an early cast recording from DreamWorks Animation’s Shrek with Farley and would-be cast-mate Eddie Murphy. In the clip, early storyboard stills animate a heated discussion that occurs somewhere around the half-way mark of the finished production from 2001, though with Farley in the role of the film’s monstrous protagonist the lines finally delivered by fellow SNL alumnus Mike Myers have a different tone entirely. Where Myers intones that everyone has hurt him in the scene in question in the film, Farley cites his parents in particular, an obvious outpouring from an actor whose problems with his own father are a small part of Hodge’s film but no small factor leading his downfall in real life. In the audio clip, Farley sounds beleaguered and defeated, suggesting that perhaps the rising star was on the cusp of full recovery, physically and spiritually.

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

Such an evocation of Farley’s character via a primary source is exactly what is so sorely missing from I Am Chris Farley. While some of Farley’s closest friends are there to provide eye-witness testimony for Hodge to use in his film, there is a certain hollowness behind the camera that causes the entire production to appear to be merely flirting with engaging a subject far more complicated than a merely tragic drug overdose. Farley was obviously conflicted regarding his own artistic ability, as evidenced by testimony from Bob Odenkirk and Myers, and his struggles with the over-indulgence of sensory pleasures probably had a lot to do with an image of himself that was less than flattering, thanks in no small part to the roles which he engaged on a weekly basis on live TV.

But Hodge, like his featured cultural commentators Adam Sandler and David Spade, appears content to offer blanket statements and a simple aphoristic appraisal of the man who was Chris Farley. Perhaps the worst commentator of all comes in the guise of SNL creator himself, who espouses his professionalism in working with such volatile performers as Farley undoubtedly was, and John Belushi before him, with an oddly warm austerity that speaks more to bureaucratic utility than compassionate empathy. It’s remarkable to hear Sandler and Spade fondly remember a close friend lost too soon, but in Hodge’s inability to truly push any of his subjects towards a three-dimensional appraisal of the tragedy at hand, I Am Chris Farley fails to inherit the name of its unearned feature signifier.

NBC

NBC

When Farley came out alongside the sculpted, regimented mass that was Patrick Swayze in that infamous Chippendale’s sketch, audiences everywhere knew they were in awe of a talent who was truly something special. When Farley fell through a prop table as motivational speaker Matt Foley only to get right back up and kept throwing out comedic punches despite what must have been a mild-to-temporary concussion, viewers knew they had found their new comedy king. And in movies like Tommy Boy, comedy fans had found their idol, critical consensus be darned. It’s not just that Farley was a great comedian, as he was, and it isn’t only for his untimely demise for which he is remembered. Far from it, Farley is remembered because he was the genuine article, a comic performer willing to give himself over entirely to the joke, which was often himself, and much to his emotional detriment and personal sanity.

In continuing to laugh at Farley on “The Chris Farley Show,” and guffawing as he self-applied C.P.R. mid mimed heart attack, we the audience were encouraging bad behavior. I Am Chris Farley unfortunately carries on such a torrid legacy with the film’s subject, despite the small insights offered by some of Hodge’s featured biographers. It’s unlikely that Farley’s death will ever surpass the miasma of myth that it has become in the eighteen-odd years since his passing. He might not have been everyone’s cup of proverbial tea, but Farley would have sincerely liked to be; he was a mensch of immeasurable honor and beauty, a fact which I Am Chris Farley intimates without ever stating emphatically, the film in admiration of its chosen folk hero from a distance that might just be impossible to surpass.

Featured Image: Spike TV