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Tucson Weekly "Almost" Isn't Good Enough

"Almost Heroes" is like an unfunny Fear and Loathing on the Lewis and Clark Trail.

By Stacey Richter

JUNE 8, 1998:  SHORTLY BEFORE HIS death, Chris Farley is said to have remarked that he was proudest of his performance in Almost Heroes, a new wacky comedy from director Christopher Guest. There's something almost unbearably sad about this comment. Almost Heroes is extraordinarily bad. It's not just that it's misconceived or dumb or not funny, though it is those things. But something went seriously wrong here. It's clear that some sort of catastrophe marred the production of this film.

I wanted to see Almost Heroes because Guest's last film, Waiting for Guffman, was fabulous. I also have to admit I sort of admired Farley's performance in Black Sheep. Farley was a great physical comedian, and he seems to have relished parts that called for feats of utter humiliation. His role model was another almost hero, John Belushi. Both men died at 33, Belushi from a drug overdose, Farley from a cardiac arrest that was probably drug related. (From all accounts, the guy loved to party. He smoked and drank; he weighed 300 pounds and was known to have a weakness for beautiful women, particularly strippers.)

I know these facts not because I'm a Farley fan, but because Almost Heroes had such a weird aura to it that I was driven to do a little research on Farley and his co-star, Matthew Perry. From what I could gather, these were two insane party boys. Perry recently checked himself into rehab for "the beginning of a dependency on painkillers," which I guess means he was a junkie. My extremely informal research (consisting of consulting with friends who watch E! and read TV Guide) has uncovered the fact that Perry's limo driver turned him in for using lots of cocaine.

Who cares? But there's something so odd about this movie. It's a period comedy, set in the early days of the 19th century. Lewis and Clark have just set out on their expedition westward. Leslie Edwards (Perry), a foppish explorer, has hired Bartholomew Hunt (Farley) as a guide because he wants to try to beat Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. Screwball comedies are often based on flimsy premises, but even a quest to see a particular sorority girl in her panties would not seem as stupid as this.

I was hoping Guest would at least make the most of the period setting. He didn't. Mostly, the explorers (there's a whole group of 'em) row their boat up the Missouri cracking the requisite dumb jokes. The "funniest" part of the whole thing is that the boat doesn't actually move. This doesn't seem to be an intended joke, though.

I guess because Farley was a fat guy, a lot of the gags involve eating. This wasn't really so bad. What was troubling was a theme of alcohol-related jokes, given that, you know, Farley's death seems to have been alcohol related. The scene where he drinks a band of Spanish conquistadors under the table is especially creepy. It's all fun and games until somebody has a cardiac arrest and is discovered with a red fluid leaking from his nose.

Truly, the most disturbing part came near the end of the movie. Perry (as Edwards) has finally vanquished the meanest conquistador by removing his wig (ha ha). And there, at the moment of his victory, something awful happens to Perry. He'd looked healthy and rosy throughout the film, but instantly he appeared pale and gaunt. His hair looked funny, like maybe he was wearing a wig. From one shot to the next, he'd become perhaps 40 pounds thinner, and not in a good way. For a moment I thought they'd replaced him with another actor. Then I thought he had to have become seriously ill. None of my "research" seems to support this, so I guess it was the drugs, or a little bout of anorexia.

I'm sure being famous isn't easy, especially if you're famous for appearing in such banalities as Friends and Tommy Boy. Perhaps we should read Almost Heroes as a cautionary tale of survival and defeat. At least Perry survived to see it open in theaters, though I'm sure it will close in a week or two. And as for Farley, let's try to remember him at his best, in the few moments in Almost Heroes when he's actually funny. In his best scene, Captain Edwards is trying to teach the illiterate Hunt to read. "This is capital A," he says, drawing in on a chalkboard. Hunt smiles and repeats. "And this," he continues, "is lowercase A." Farley starts groaning and rubbing his face: "I can't take it," he says, "It's too much. My brain is going to explode!" And then he runs out of the room. It's pretty funny. s

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