A FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE is an absurd love letter to comedic genius
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is an amusing and sincere look at the making of the National Lampoon empire by tortured co-creator Doug Kenney. Based on Josh Karp’s book and brought to life by director David Wain, the film debuts on Netflix this January 26th.
National Lampoon was an American surrealist humor publication established in the 70’s by Kenney (Will Forte) and his creative/business partner Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson). Their printed exploits were often characteristic of day-to-day operations and viewpoints on politics, sex and pop-culture of the time. The magazine exploded in popularity, spawning a radio iteration and the most profitable comedy film of its time, Animal House. Kenney, whom this bio-pic is primarily focused, struggled with success and a crippling cocaine addiction that (may have) resulted in his death at the age of 33 during one of his impromptu sabbaticals.
In A Futile and Stupid Gesture, the “posthumous” version of Kenney is played by Martin Mull. The 74-year old actor serves as the film’s narrator, filling-in the blanks to (Forte) Kenney’s obsessive and tragic lifestyle. Mull’s existence is an odd window to view from, considering Kenney never lived beyond 33-years. It may upend any preconceptions the viewer may have about the picture’s authenticity, after all, the movie is rife with absurdity.
There’s an absurdly talented cast doing their best impressions as well. Lonny Ross’s Ivan Reitman and Jon Daly’s Bill Murray impersonations can be quick targets for criticism, but each, as well as the rest of the cast, are impactful and restrained. On that same token, you are well-aware Joel McHale and Jackie Tohn and Rick Glassman and so on are impersonating these cultural juggernauts. None more distracting than Will Forte playing a drug-addicted version of his Last Man on Earth leading man Phil “Tandy” Miller. It’s a pleasant-enough portrayal but sometimes you can’t shake the actor from his or her character. Is it that today’s iconic comedians playing yesterday’s iconic comedians is part of the joke?
Known for his caustic take on Hollywood comedic tropes, there aren’t many directors suited to direct a National Lampoon biography than David Wain. His cult-favorite Wet Hot American Summer, which spawned its own Netflix series, was a parody of the Lampoon-esque movies that came before it. But Wain and screenwriters Michael Colton and John Aboud, had to strike a balance between the obvious bits of humor and the more serious periods in Kenney’s life. For instance, Mull opens the film to the typical mayhem of college life antics, and moments later informs us Kenney’s kid brother passed away when he was very young, adding “see why I didn’t open with this?” It’s the loss of his brother, and the mountains of cocaine, and the adultery, and Kenny’s insatiable need for his father’s approval that may have led to his undoing. This balance keeps the viewer engaged and something Wain handled extraordinarily well.
I’d recommend A Futile and Stupid Gesture to those viewers only slightly interested in the origins of National Lampoon or for those not willing to invest in the more serious biography’s and documentary’s. It’s not a traditional bio-pic by any measure because it is told by comics paying homage to their heroes. It does cover the making of some of the more iconic Lampoon covers and features, as well as exposing viewers to the launchpad of many of the comedy world’s elite, although the real value comes from the creative license.