Like the resurrected Jesus appearing before his disciples, movie stars have a way of showing up on the big screen weeks, even months, after their deaths. This can add an element of immortality to their careers--witness James Dean and Tupac Shakur, who passed over from star to myth after they'd been laid to rest. And, at the very least, it gives us an opportunity to sort through our feelings about people we've come to think of as our friends, even though we've never met them. It's the memorial service we are invited to. Almost Heroes, a spoof on the Lewis and Clark expedition starring Madison's Chris Farley as a buckskin-clad tracker, had completed filming when Farley was found dead in his Chicago apartment last December. It's not a great movie (and Farley's not at the top of his form), but it's great to see him again, alive and well and gently pushing his weight around. Farley staked his whole career on his ability to push his weight around--sometimes gently, sometimes not. Of all the fat-guy comedians we've gotten to know over the years, he seemed the least inhibited by his weight. John Belushi, Farley's idol, wasn't inhibited either, but Belushi didn't really register as a fat guy. And Farley might not have registered as one either if he hadn't kept bringing it up all the time. Like Belushi, Farley moved, not with the hippo-balletic grace of, say, Oliver Hardy but with the pulling-guard grace of an ex-football player. Maybe that's why we were able to laugh at him as he hauled his capacious gut from one side of the screen to the other. He seemed like a not-so-fat guy trapped in a fat guy's body. We know better now, of course. Farley was very much a fat guy trapped in a fat guy's body (his appetites were enormous), and that casts a mournful shadow over his body of work. It's difficult to watch that "Saturday Night Live" compilation of Farley's comedy sketches, for example, without cringing at the number of times he made his body the butt of his own jokes. A slapstick comedian, he was a glutton for punishment--only, instead of custard pies in the face, two-by-fours. Farley reversed the old adage about never letting 'em see you sweat. He always let us see him sweat, which was strangely liberating, considering his size. For better or worse, he didn't try to wear his weight well. Compare that to, say, Roseanne, who wears hers as a badge of working-class honor. The thing is, Roseanne's a survivor, whereas Farley succumbed to food, alcohol and drugs. Why? Who knows? Certainly, he was a victim of the kind of success where even the rewards are punishing; you try partying from one end of Chicago to the other. Beyond that, he seems to have convinced himself that he always had to be the life of that party. There are comedians who can turn it on and off and comedians who aren't even aware there's a switch. Farley knew there was a switch, he just didn't know how to turn it off. Like Belushi, he got all caught up in the idea that he had to be the same party animal off-screen that he was on-screen--a vow of authenticity that contemporary comedians inherited from rock stars. In Farley's case, the vow was "Live fast, die young, and leave a 296-pound corpse." In yet another swipe at the early-'90s "Saturday Night Live," The New Yorker's James Wolcott called Farley "a party animal without a party." Wolcott found it "almost cruel to watch this heavy young man heave and breathe hard and hitch up his belt and thump himself on the chest to dislodge food from his throat." I must confess, I almost always found it hilarious; if making fun of his weight problem didn't bother Farley, it didn't bother me. Now I wonder, and not just because overweight people are the least protected minority in America. I now wonder how much it bothered Farley, and that's spoiling his comedy for me. He was a gifted comedian, but his gift was all wrapped up in the sweaty desperation of his life. And the saddest part is that, as a comedian, his wounds were largely self-inflicted; he played Moe to his own Curly. It's why we loved him, of course, but it may also be why we lost him. Perhaps, with slapstick comedy having turned into slapstick tragedy, we'll reevaluate where we get our laughs from--learn something from the death of the life of the party. Meanwhile, may Madison's one and only movie star rest in peace. God knows he needed it. Almost Heroes isn't likely to gain Farley cinematic immortality. As a matter of fact, the movie's almost as inept as its lead characters--Farley's Bartholomew Hunt, a grizzly bear of a man who makes Daniel Boone look like Pat Boone, and Matthew Perry's Leslie Edwards, a British-inflected fop who convinces Hunt to join him on a trek across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. If that sounds like the route Lewis and Clark took toward fame and fortune, it's supposed to. The movie's premise is that Edwards and Hunt stumbled and bumbled their way to the Pacific Ocean before their more celebrated rivals but didn't have Lewis and Clark's knack for publicity. A fine premise, I suppose, but the movie doesn't satirize our country's initial act of "Westward, ho!" so much as spin crummy jokes off it. Maybe it's me, but there's just something not-funny about a tricornered hat. That goes for buckskin too.
"Kiss my hairy buttocks," Hunt shouts to a crowd that's gathered to see him hung by the neck in the movie's opening scene. Angelically devilish, Hunt is nevertheless a change of pace for Farley in that he doesn't have a "Kick Me" sign pinned to his back this time. Unfortunately, that doesn't leave him with much to do, and he almost seems like a supporting actor in his own movie. As for Perry, he has altogether too much to do; his snitty, snotty routine wears mighty thin mighty soon. Almost Heroes might have had the easygoing charm of the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope road movies, but director Christopher Guest seems to have misplaced his map; the movie's almost devoid of direction. And it's about as funny as buffalo dung, which Hunt likes to pick up and sniff for the pure pleasure of it. I don't suspect Chris Farley will be remembered for this little walk on the mild side, but he will be remembered...and missed.