The 400-Word Review: A Futile and Stupid Gesture
By Sean Collier
January 30, 2018
How do you create a biopic of one of the last century’s most irreverent comic figures — who died tragically and desperately? You’ve got to make it genuinely funny. You also have to make it more than a bit heartbreaking.
It’s going to be very difficult. It may not be a good idea to try.
And yet, we have A Futile and Stupid Gesture, a biopic of National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney. It shouldn’t work. The movie acknowledges its own struggles, repeatedly; there’s a moment in the middle of the film where Kenney calls time to introduce a rapid-fire reel of the numerous mistakes they’re making with the narrative. It’s a gag that would’ve worked in the Lampoon itself — self-deprecating, honest and defiant.
Yes — somehow, this film is really good.
Kenney — played by both Will Forte and, in a narrator’s role, by Martin Mull — was a co-editor of the venerable Harvard Lampoon who converted his collegiate success into the influential and biting humor magazine, along with a pair of co-founders (only Henry Beard is represented in the film, played by Domhnall Gleeson). The success of the magazine would lead to a radio show and a groundbreaking stage show, then Animal House and Caddyshack, both co-written by Kenney.
Depression and addiction became strong forces in Kenney’s life, however, largely due to perceived failures; most of his Lampoon empire was gobbled up by the young Saturday Night Live, and critical reaction to Caddyshack was, initially, cool. A Futile and Stupid Gesture also centers on Kenney’s strained relationship with his parents.
The performances are good. Forte is strong, and there are some standout performances among the massive supporting cast; Joel McHale plays Chevy Chase perfectly, and Jon Daly succeeds in recreating a young Bill Murray. Emmy Rossum, Natasha Lyonne and Tom Lennon all stand out.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is, however, primarily a feat of screenwriting and directing. It couldn’t be more fitting that the writers, John Aboud and Michael Colton, are themselves former editors of the Harvard Lampoon; they possess both the reverence for their forebear to make it land and the wit to make it funny. And while the comedy world no longer has the centralized powerhouses it once did, director David Wain — of Wet Hot American Summer and The State renown — strongly bears the influence of the Lampoon camp, if not precisely the DNA.
My Rating: 8/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark