Starring: Chris Farley, David Spade, Tim Matheson, Christine Ebersole, Gary Busey, Bruce McGill
Rated PG-13 for Crude Language and Humor, Drug-Related Material and Sexual Innuendo
A movie like “Black Sheep” is what happens when no one involved in the creative process is on the same page. To say that it had a troubled production history is to understate matters. Paramount had totally underestimated the appeal of “Tommy Boy” and wanted a sequel of sorts (these days, Chris Farley and David Spade would have been contractually obligated for two sequels before there was an underlying premise). Farley wanted it to be a dramedy about an aspiring governor played by Tim Matheson and his enthusiastic but bumbling brother (played by Farley, of course). Director Penelope Spheeris didn’t think that David Spade, who played the aide assigned to keep Farley out of trouble, was funny at all. To that end, he cut out most of his scenes and she ended up leaving her a message on her answering machine saying, “You’re cutting my comedy balls off!” In addition to separating the two (by his own admission, Spade’s form of humor requires someone to play off of), she threw out most of Fred Wolf’s script and worked on it with her friend. And that was aside from the interpersonal tension brewing between close friends Farley and Spade. Farley was getting more money and attention, and he had stolen a girl from Spade (who, ironically, played the naked girl in “Tommy Boy”). With problems like that, a movie has no chance to be a success.
“Black Sheep” is a bad movie, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s not as bad as its reputation suggests. Every one of Chris’s friends and managers thought it was terrible, and some, such as “Tommy Boy” co-star Rob Lowe, argued that it was a factor in his first relapse into alcoholism and addiction (one that started the ball rolling on subsequent relapses that led to his death shortly thereafter). It’s a mess and best skipped entirely, but it’s not without its bright spots. It’s impossible for Chris Farley to be in a movie and not get at least one laugh, and it showcases his dramatic talents, which were in evidence in “Tommy Boy,” but are a little stronger here. He has some nice scenes with Matheson and especially with a young boy, played by Michael Patrick Carter, that are really wonderful. It’s one of those movies that misfires, but shows flashes of what it could have been.
Clearly, director Penelope Spheeris was the wrong person for the job as a director. According to her statements in Farley’s biography, “The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts,” she took the job for two reasons: one, they were offering her an “obscene” amount of money, and two, she had worked with Farley before (he had a cameo in her claim to fame, “Wayne’s World”) and wanted to do so again. But based on the evidence, she doesn’t understand his appeal. She relies too much on Farley’s talent for physical comedy, and it gets old after a while. She wasn’t speaking to writer Fred Wolf (who had also written “Tommy Boy” without credit), and had in fact fired him three times (he was rehired by Farley twice and producer Lorne Michaels once) before banning him from the set. Certainly, Farley’s physical gifts were on display in “Tommy Boy” (who can forget the dancing scene at the gas station?), but it primarily focused on his comic instincts and Midwestern appeal. Most importantly, it had the chemistry between Farley and Spade.
I make this distinction because Farley is clearly struggling in the role. His trademark “anti-slapstick” comedy feels forced and obligatory, like something out of a bad SNL skit. The quieter, subtler moments are much funnier. Likewise, Spade is also grasping at straws. Watching him play off a group of hillbillies or a deranged ex-soldier just isn’t the same. Tim Matheson, who, along with Bruce McGill, was cast at Farley's request due to his father’s love (not to mention his own) of “Animal House,” is a scene-stealer, providing some light, but adept, drama. More time spent with him and Farley and less time pratfalling would have helped immeasurably.
“Black Sheep” would be just another bad movie even without its tortured production. But that it was the final film with Farley and Spade and started its star’s long, painful descent to death makes it a tragic one.