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A Futile and Stupid Gesture (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 15, 2020

A Futile and Stupid Gesture


Starring Will Forte, Domhnall Gleason, Emmy Rossum, Martin Mull, Matt Walsh, Thomas Lennon, Natasha Lyonne, Seth Green, Joel McHale, Matt Lucas, Brian Huskey, Annette O’Toole, Finn Witrock, Max Greenfield, Paul Scheer, Joe Lo Truglio, John Gemberling, Camille Guaty, Jackie Tohn, Lindsey Kraft, Jon Daly, Elvy Yost, Brian Huskey, Lonny Ross and Rick Glassman.

Screenplay by Michael Colton & John Aboud.

Directed by David Wain.

Distributed by Netflix. 101 minutes. Not Rated.

Long before it started licensing out its name to cheesy made-for-video films, National Lampoon was at the cutting edge of the comic revolution of the 1970s. Bursting out of the Harvard Lampoon, National Lampoon was an edgy, counter-culture magazine that became a comic empire. An example of the magazine’s irreverence is the January 1973 cover that pretty much exploded things for them: they had a picture of an adorable canine with a gun pointed to his head with the shocking headline “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.” (To make this story even more dreadful, a few years later someone really did track down the dog and killed him.)

Pretty much everything cutting edge in comedy spawned from the Lampoon: National Lampoon Radio Hour, Second City, Lemmings, The Groove Tube, Fireside Theater, the Groundlings, comic records, Saturday Night Live, Animal House…. you name it.

It should be the ideal subject for a film. In fact, just two years ago, the documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead did a very good job of illustrating the wild-and-crazy times of National Lampoon. Now Netflix has made a biopic that treads in much the same waters. And while it is often likable and funny, it does not do nearly as good a job of recreating the game-changing comic revolution and the fizzy wild life of National Lampoon.

Director David Wain would also seem like the ideal person to shepherd A Futile and Stupid Gesture (the movie’s title is derived from a line in National Lampoon’s Animal House); having had a long impressive comic filmmaking career helming the likes of Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models, Wanderlust and the TV series Wainy Days.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is based on the life of National Lampoon co-founder Douglas Kenney, who went on to co-write the classic comedies Animal House and Caddyshack. He was also known for playing a bit part in National Lampoon’s Animal House, playing Delta House über-nerd Stork. (His most famous line: “What are we supposed to do, ya mo-ron?”)

You know things are going wrong in this biopic right away, because they have hired Martin Mull to do narration as Kenney as an old man. Not that I don’t love the chance to see Mull; he’s a great comic talent – and one who experienced the world that this movie is exploring. However, Kenney died in 1980 at age 33, falling from a cliff in a hiking accident in Hawaii that has long been suspected to have been a possible suicide.

Now, Wain and the writers had to have known this very basic and definitive biographical fact of Kenney’s life (and death). So, why are they framing the film as a reminiscence from the man, when Kenney obviously never lived long enough to really have any kind of perspective on how his life and career changed the world? And how can he be an older man telling his own story when he never came close to reaching retirement age? Are they suggesting that it is Kenney’s ghost telling the story? If so, wouldn’t he still be 33? Do they think that people continue to age in the afterlife?

But enough about the framing story, which even the film eventually flippantly dismisses as a “plot device.” The movie is a slightly awkward balance of comedy and drama. Kenney is played by former Saturday Night Live comic Will Forte – who is probably a bit too old to play the role, particularly in the college flashbacks – but he does a nice job in playing a rather inscrutable character that the film never seems to completely figure out.

During the National Lampoon days, one of Kenney’s female coworkers asks him, “Is everything you say a one-liner?” And in this film, it pretty much is. Yes, the guy is a comedian, but no comedian is always “on,” and everything, but everything he says is a joke.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture gives a smart-but-disjointed greatest bits trek through Kenney’s life, his troubled childhood, college days, the creation of National Lampoon, creating his movies, his strained relationship with his parents, wife and lovers, his drug addiction, his depression and his fear of failure.

Honestly, the comic parts work a whole lot better than the dramatic ones. Forte is surrounded by actors playing comic legends like John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Lorne Michaels, Michael O’Donahue, Ann Beattie, Christopher Guest, Rodney Dangerfield and many others. Most of them don’t look much like the person they are playing, and the imitations are uneven, but mostly enjoyable. Joel McHale is particularly good at capturing Chevy Chase, who McHale worked with during several strife-filled years on the series Community.

Early on in A Futile and Stupid Gesture, Martin Mull acknowledges that we probably don’t know who Kenney is. Sadly, after seeing his biofilm, other than in the broadest strokes, we still really don’t know.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: January 26, 2018.

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