A Futile and Stupid Gesture Review

The rise and fall of the subversive comedians at National Lampoon was already extensively covered in the Sundance selected documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon. But director David Wain (They Came Together, Role Models) has taken a completely different approach in his dramatization of the creation of the humor magazine turned radio show and movie production house.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is based on Josh Karp’s book of the same name, and it follows the founding of the wildly successful National Lampoon as it unfolds in the biographical story of co-creator and comedian Doug Kenney. However, David Wain doesn’t simply use this as an opportunity to craft a traditional biopic. Instead, the movie is a meta, self-aware retelling of Doug Kenney’s story in the same comedic style of National Lampoon, with a vibe that’s a lot like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy meets Man on the Moon.

Martin Mull narrates the story of Doug Kenney as a fictionalized, modern version of the comedian (you’ll find out why at the end of the movie). Immediately, the nature of this film is revealed as Wain (off-camera) tries to get Mull to introduce the film in an intentionally pretentious manner, much to the chagrin of Kenney who flat-out tells him to fuck off.

From there, we jump to a sad childhood moment and fast forwards to his college years, where he’s now played by Will Forte and has become the rambunctious editor of The Harvard Lampoon, where he worked to create revered college comedy with writer and best friend Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson). These two are set to move on to law school, but following the publication of their Lord of the Rings parody book Bored of the Rings, Kenney has the bold idea to just keep writing comedy by turning The Harvard Lampoon into a national publication.

Though initially hesitant, the dashingly nerdy Beard commits to following Kenney’s newfound dream, and the rest is history. That history comes and goes swiftly in this film with composite characters, rushed timelines and intentionally fictionalized scenarios that were inspired by the real life events but punched up to make a more entertaining movie. Don’t worry if you don’t know the real story to notice these inconsistencies, because the film calls them out and even lists a bunch of the inaccuracies they intentionally put into the movie. That’s exactly the kind of meta storytelling we’re dealing with, and that’s what makes this infinitely more entertaining than your traditional biopic.

Thanks to this self-referential storytelling style, we get endless jokes poking fun at biopic movie tropes as well as the history of National Lampoon itself. Martin Mull ponders whether the audience really thinks he looked like Will Forte when he was 27, or if they actually buy that Will Forte is 27. He also mocks the fact that the cavalcade of actors in this movie like Joel McHale, Jon Daly, John Gemberling, Jackie Tohn, or Rick Glassman don’t really look anything like Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner or Harold Ramis.

At the same time, Wain calls attention to the fact that there were so few women involved in this pivotal moment in comedy history, let alone zero people of color. It’s a smart script that doesn’t gloss over the less glamorous details of this time period and uses them to create more comedy. It borders on spoof, but it’s more like the kind of satire that National Lampoon became known for in the 1970s to the point that Kenney’s break-up with his first serious girlfriend is told in a series of panels emulating the dirty comics one would find in the magazine. The only downside is because of this style, at times the film feels a little chaotic and lacks focus. Thankfully, it moves fast enough and has so many great one-liners that you don’t ever really think about it much.

Despite all the laughs in this film, Wain also tackles a serious subject under all the comedy. Kenney’s story is a tragic one that many comedians know all too well. Despite reaching peak levels of success with National Lampoon, including creating the most successful comedy of all time to date (Animal House), Kenney was never satisfied in his work and was always obsessed with getting the next laugh, not to mention gaining the approval of his parents, no matter how it damaged his personal and professional relationships.

For anyone who grew up with National Lampoon, you’ll be happy to see fantastic recreations of shows featuring The Lemmings comedy troupe, the National Lampoon radio show, and behind the scenes moments on the set of Animal House and Caddyshack. Even Saturday Night Live is prominently featured since the show that poached a lot of key National Lampoon talent and rubbed Kenney the wrong way. For those who aren’t familiar with these elements, it will serve as a satisfying (though not entirely accurate) entertainment history lesson.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is a refreshing biopic that plays with the genre as only a brilliant comedic mind like David Wain can deliver. Having crafted perfect spoofs in the form of Wet Hot American Summer and They Came Together, Wain knows how to balance the more traditional filmmaking elements with his outside the box comedic ideas. It’s laugh out loud funny, endlessly charming, and emulates the spirit of National Lampoon in a way that is more than satisfying.

The film will be available on Netflix starting January 26, 2018.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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