In a brief life full of triumph and failure, “National Lampoon” co-founder Doug Kenney built a comedy empire, molding pop culture in the 1970s.
Director: David Wain
Starring: Martin Mull, David Wain, Matt Lucas, Will Forte, Joel McHale, Domhnall Gleeson, Natasha Lyonne, Seth Green, Thomas Lennon, Emmy Rossum, Matt Walsh, Camille Guaty, Elvy Yost, John Gemberling, Rick Glassman, Jackie Tohn
Information Page: https://www.newonnetflix.info/info/80107084
Guest Reviewer: Chad Diver [twitter]
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is a biopic which details the life of Doug Kenney (Will Forte), the co-creator of National Lampoon, originally a comedy magazine which later spawned a radio show and many movies, starting with the classic “Animal House”. Kenney, along with his partner Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson), revolutionised comedy at a time of war and pushed back against the conservatism of then-president Richard Nixon.
This is by no means a bad movie, but it feels like a real missed opportunity. The cast is impressive overall, especially Forte and the always brilliant Gleeson. The evolution of National Lampoon from a Harvard student publication to super successful national magazine to having its writers stolen by Saturday Night Live is played out well enough. Unfortunately, almost nothing else in the movie really works all that well.
One of the most interesting parts of the National Lampoon story is the controversy that the magazine caused, but we never really delve into this, beyond a montage of Matty Simmons (Matt Walsh) storming out of his office again and again announcing another legal case against his company. We are confined almost entirely within the office, so there is no real feeling of the magazine being under threat, Doug and Henry aren’t bothered by any of it, so neither are we.
The film has a meta element running through it, it is being narrated by an aged Doug, who is often standing in the scenes making references to the actors or creative choices of the filmmakers. Of course, this is not really Doug Kenney as he died in 1980. It is a strange creative choice that takes away substantially more than it adds, often interrupting weighty moments of drama to get a laugh which doesn’t come. Weirdly, there are fairly long periods in the film when the narrator is absent, and it’s pretty deflating when he pops up again.
It is always an uphill battle when great comedians are being played by other comedians or actors, perhaps the most successful example is Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. But most of the time it just feels like someone less funny is doing an impression, which is what we get here. The quality of the portrayals ranges from pretty decent (Joel McHale’s Chevy Chase) to poor (John Gemberling’s John Belushi) to downright unbearable (Erv Dahl’s Rodney Dangerfield).
A good biopic should give the viewer a great insight into the life of the subject, which we do get to an extent, but the viewer should also learn about the other people in the subject’s life. In this, the film really fails. We see almost nothing of Henry Beard’s life outside of the magazine. Which is particularly frustrating as he is very likeable and perfectly portrayed by Gleeson. It’s hard to recall one thing about either of Doug’s two wives, what do they do? We hardly even see them interact with Doug outside of them meeting and then being angry with him, are we supposed to care about these relationships? Doug’s relationship with his parents, especially his father, is clearly an important part of his story, but his desperation for approval is handled with as much subtlety as a food fight.
There is a line towards the end of A Futile and Stupid Gesture that pretty much sums up the preceding 95 minutes, “Every funny person in the world is here, and no one’s laughing”. The cast are funny, the people they are playing are funny, but the laughs on offer here are few and far between. DirectorDavid Wain tried to make an unconventional movie, perhaps as a tribute to the unconventional Doug Kenney, but in doing so he has sacrificed much of the humour and drama in what should have been a fascinating, tragic tale of a comedy legend.
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