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film review

Vancouver-based directors Brent Hodge and Derik Murray employ Chris Farley’s body of work to explain the explosive comedian in a heartfelt and hilarious documentary.

We remember the robust Chris Farley in the 1995 comedy Tommy Boy, and if we remember Tommy Boy we know Farley better than we might realize. "Fat guy in a little coat," he sang in that film, wearing a jacket many sizes too small. The coat rips – a sight gag, a fatty Ferrigno, one more pratfall from an anything-for-a-laugh fellow who was just too oversized for his own good.

The scene is a microcosm of I Am Chris Farley, a bittersweet salute, appraisal and explanation of the early-nineties Saturday Night Live troupe mainstay. A wild, susceptible cannonball into the funny pond, everybody got wet when this ultra-physical performer was around.

But if his all-in comedy was fairly one-dimensional, the person was much more complex. We are entertainingly and often sadly introduced to an over-consumptive fun-lover who comes off as a perspiring flopper, an approval-craving apology machine, an insecure clown, a party-hearty penis-flasher with no comprehension of social decorum, a gelatinous life force over-loud in compensation for his fears and tucked-away timidity.

And dead. Farley comes off as dead, victim in 1997 at age 33 of cocaine intoxication and a heroin overdose.

Unlike Amy Winehouse, Farley did not say "no, no, no" to rehab. In fact, he said okay to addiction intervention some 17 times, according to this documentary from the Vancouver-based team of Brent Hodge and Derik Murray. Although the latter is associated with the bio-doc series that covers I Am Evel Knievel, I Am Steve McQueen and I Am Bruce Lee, this Farley saga should be compared not to one of those films but instead to Asif Kapadia's Amy, this year's sympathetic doc on the beehive-haired chanteuse who died of alcohol poisoning at age 27.

As in Amy, the self-destructive subject does little of the talking. I Am Chris Farley uses an impressive cast of smiling and recalling eulogizers consisting of Christina Applegate, Tom Arnold, Dan Aykroyd, Bo Derek, Jon Lovitz, Lorne Michaels, Mike Myers, Bob Odenkirk, Bob Saget, Adam Sandler and David Spade, along with family members that include brother Kevin Farley, a look-alike but less talented comedian.

We learn that the child Farley competed for his father's attention with a sister and three rough-housing brothers in Madison, Wis.; that he and his rugby-playing pals at Marquette University enjoyed good times on and off the field; that the "In a Van Down By a River" sketch with which he would become most identified was developed during his pre-SNL stint with Second City in Chicago.

Speaking about Farley, Saget gets emotional ("I wish he didn't feel he had to apologize") and Michaels gets analytical ("If he was a little bit fucked up, it would be alright … maybe that was where the magic came from").

It's all too fawning, evasive and vague when it comes to the man's "dark side." (This is what we've come to expect with the dead-star I Am series, all authorized and sanitized.)

The best the directors can do – and it's not bad – is to employ Farley's body of work to explain the explosive comedian. So we see him interview Paul McCartney for an SNL sketch, in which he is unsure and self-flagellating. We see him in Tommy Boy, as an emotionally immature man attempting to fill his Midwestern industrialist father's footprints. (Farley's own dad owned an oil-and-asphalt company, where son Chris was an incapable employee.)

It's all a bit sad, but nothing is more crushing than an off-the-cuff comment Farley makes at one point, attempting to explain his comedic role in life. "I think when fatty falls down," he mutters with a resigned tone, "everyone goes home happy."

Farley never bothered to learn how to break his falls, though. Watching YouTube clips of the man tumbling over chairs repeatedly on the Late Show with David Letterman is heartbreaking in hindsight. Farley's own self-worth, on and off the screen, seemed neatly tied up in self-harming slapstick. And it doesn't look like he went home happy at all.