Those, like me, who weren’t alive in the 1970’s won’t remember the heyday of National Lampoon magazine. As a collector of satirical magazines like Mad, and Punch, I’d go so far to suggest that one thing A Futile and Stupid Gesture, the Netflix biopic about Doug Kenney, co-creator and lifeforce behind this Harvard born soft pornographic rag, falling somewhere between Playboy, Mad and the New Yorker in its haphazard content – is that the magazine wasn’t actually very funny.
Nevertheless, the comedic tributes and myriad one-liners in this film are tribute to the true legacy of the Lampoon, both in its long term contribution to modern American comedy, and creating the environment where originality and improvisation were allowed to thrive. The movie is a fitting tribute to Kenney, who was a contrarian, complex and often conflicting character, who evidently had an acerbic wit and admirably stubborn determination to succeed, well portrayed by regular SNL comedian and actor Will Forte.
The huge cast who support Forte to depict Kenney and the Lampoon’s rise to notoriety are also testament to the nostalgia and eagerness to reflect on this period. As the film shows, Kenney’s early forays into television pretty much give birth to Saturday Night Live, and a new generation of comedians. The character tributes are central to the fun; from Erv Dahl as Rodney Dangerfield, to Brian Huskey as John Landis, Lonny Ross playing Ivan Reitman, Joel McHale as Chevy Chase, John Gemberling as John Belushi, Rick Glassman as Harold Ramis, and John Daly as Bill Murray – there is enough for any fan of film and comedy to appreciate the fertile breeding ground of the period depicted.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is the brainchild of Josh Carp, based on his book of the same name, and brought to the screen by David Wain, a fitting director matched to the type of frat house, juvenile comedy launched by the Lampoon, having himself penned Wet Hot American Summer (2001) and Role Models (2008). Wain himself, obviously owes a debt of favour and influence to the comedy movies spawned by National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and Caddy Shack (1980) in both of which, as the movie portrays, Kenney was the pivotal driving creative force.
These films would go on to inspire countless generations, from Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman in Ghostbusters (1984) to Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Police Academy (1984), American Pie (1999), The Hangover (2009), and just about all of modern counter cultural comedy owes a debt of gratitude to these pioneering films. Personally, as an aside, National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 (1991) has to be one of my favourite best/worst movies of all time; pitting Samuel L. Jackson alongside Emelio Estevez in the most absurd series of gags in a movie ever.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is a good montage of the life of Doug Kenney and co-creator Henry Beard, played by Domnhall Gleeson, as they secure their position in the comedy scene, slowly burn out and suffer from personal complications, and meet their obscure fates. The jokes and one-liners are mostly taken from true anecdotes by the staff of the Lampoon, and this adds a layer of credibility to the production.
In fact, the device used in the film is particularly clever, having an older actor playing Doug Kenney in a mockumentary format, as if telling his story. This almost tricked me, even though I was already familiar with the story of Kenney from other biopics, such as Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead (2015). Kenney very famously died tragically in Hawaii at the age of 32. While strolling along a high cliff, he walked past a warning sign, and plummetted to his death (this of course making the Kenney narrator an impossible device).
There was a long lasting controversy over wether Doug Kenney, who was known to suffer from depression and drug and alcohol problems, had killed himself or accidentally fallen, and the usual gossip surrounding such tragic events was rampant.
The film brilliantly utilises Harold Ramis’ actual quote surrounding the incident, in continuation of the dead pan, no holds barred position of Kenney’s magazine; “Doug probably fell while he was looking for a place to jump.”
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is a good reflective piece, and modern analysis on what comedy really is, and I’d say it is definitely worth watching for anyone with an interest in film, comedy and satire.
On top of portrayal of many comedians, the film also features a stack of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from David Krumholtz, Ed Helms, Seth Green, Annette O’Toole, Paul Scheer, and most hilariously, Paul Rudd.