Almost Heroes should never have seen the light of a projector. Not because it’s in bad taste for Warner Brothers to make money from Chris Farley’s last movie, although the film is unavoidably creepy: There he is in his final performance, guzzling whiskey and shrieking, pasty and dangerously overweight, looking very much like a man who’s going to die soon. No, the movie should simply have been pronounced dead along with Farley — or at least unreleasable. God knows it’s unwatchable.
A little of Chris Farley went a long way, as is the case with many Saturday Night Live alumni: their relentless broad shtick gooses a laugh out of you if kept to five-minute increments, but at feature length it becomes obnoxious. Farley made me laugh occasionally on SNL, but one look at the ads for his movies told me exactly what I’d be missing: a fat guy whacking his head on things for ninety minutes. In Almost Heroes, Farley, playing a scruffy mountain guide named Bartholomew Hunt, does a fair amount of witless slapstick. He confronts a vicious eagle; he tumbles down mountains and gets slapped around.
Watching Almost Heroes becomes incredibly sad when you recall that Farley badly wanted to do more substantive work, like a biopic of Fatty Arbuckle. He never got the chance to do better than this, and what’s truly shocking about the movie is that it was directed by Christopher Guest, who has done better. His The Big Picture and Waiting for Guffman — not to mention Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, which Guest co-wrote as well as co-starred in — were razor-sharp digs at the pretensions of show business. At Almost Heroes, I sat blinking in the dark, completely baffled. Guest is on autopilot here, halfheartedly staging the crude jokes, and I began to wonder whether it was Farley who dragged his directors down all along.
The script, credited to Mark Nutter, Tom Wolfe (not the Tom Wolfe, I’m sure) and Boyd Hale (a producer on Full House), plays like a low-rent Mel Brooks comedy. It’s 1804, and Farley’s Bartholomew Hunt is recruited by explorer Leslie Edwards (Matthew Perry) to help him beat Lewis and Clark across the country to the Pacific. The idea has promise; Guest sets up Edwards as a foppish glory-hound who’s willing to put his team (including Eugene Levy, whose insanely jealous Frenchman is the movie’s only source of laughs) in serious danger so he can steal Lewis and Clark’s thunder.
But the movie just uses the plot as a string on which to hang gags — which is fine if the gags are funny. They aren’t. Where was Christopher Guest on the set? The movie has none of his prickly verbal wit or deadpan sight gags. And the eerie subtext makes matters worse. While Farley is carrying on like Falstaff on crank, Matthew Perry stands around looking sickly and drained, his features still gaunt from his much-publicized bout with painkillers. What we’re watching isn’t a funny fat-thin team — these are two guys with massive health problems.
The stars’ sickness and exhaustion eventually bleed the movie dry. Almost Heroes meanders along, and Kevin Dunn (Godzilla) shows up as a Spanish villain named Hidalgo, a pale copy of Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. This smells like a project that was dead from the get-go, and Chris Farley’s posthumous exertions cast a final pall. There he is, one last time, knocking himself out for nothing. Poor bastard. He deserved a better swan song; anybody deserves better than this.