It’s not surprising that a biopic about National Lampoon founder Doug Kenney (played by Will Forte) would come out right now. With Netflix’s dedication to weekly comedy specials, the importance of SNL, and the evolution of social-media to share comedy, of course, it’s timely to release a movie about one of the most influential forces in comedy. A Futile and Stupid Gesture is both hilarious and dramatic, bringing to life both the excitement and burden of living in the comedy world. While easily watchable and very entertaining, there are certain aspects that leave the audience a little confused and unsure of how they’re supposed to feel.
The film is cut into two distinctive parts. It starts as a straightforward comedic biopic up until Kenney starts work on Caddyshack, and the first half is really lighthearted. Even when Kenney has his breakdown and leaves the magazine for a time, there are still plenty of laughs to be had. The serious moments are all short-lived, and the pacing goes well. Martin Mull’s self-aware narration is funny, providing a deus ex machina for any inconsistencies or inaccuracies. Will Forte is having a ball, occupying the mind of a comedy genius. There are plenty of one-liners thrown around, and despite one of Modern Doug’s jokes, each actor’s impressions are pretty good. For the smaller named comics, you never think you’re watching the actor. There are plenty of A-list celebrities in this, but they’re all pretty hard to catch. The Bill Murray (Jon Daly) and Rodney Dangerfield (Erv Dahl) impressions are easier to catch as impersonators, but they’re so spot on that you can almost get lost.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is a comedy nerd’s dream, not only as a showing of the history of comedy and a Where’s Waldo? of the past and present comedy worlds, but it really shows a lot of the dark sides of comedy. In a less intense moment, it shows the competitive nature of the entertainment industry when Kenney confronts a young Lorne Michaels (Armen Weitzman). Kenney has trouble keeping a healthy relationship and suffers from serious drug addiction. It’s incredibly intense when he shows up to a Caddyshack screening wasted. It’s heart-shattering, especially when Kenney’s parents have shown up after him begging. Forte still has fun, throwing one-liners, even up to Kenney’s death and after, but the mood has shifted, and it’s sadder. The most emotional moment is at Kenney’s funeral when his parents (Annette O’Toole and Harry Groener) look at his casket and piece together how loved their son was. It’s incredibly moving, and Forte is nuanced enough to act as Kenney’s emotional ghost.
All that said, the movie is a little awkward. The constant food fights are all sort of strange, even though they’re homages to Animal House. Ending the movie with one seemed a little tacked on to give the movie an upbeat and light ending. The oddest choice though was Martin Mull’s “Modern Doug” narrator. It works as a device, and he is a really funny character, but having an older “what-if” Kenney seems a little disrespectful. Additionally, for a viewer like me, who doesn’t know the history of National Lampoon, I needed to do research to see what really happened. It doesn’t take away from the film, but it does leave the viewer feeling a tad conflicted.
All in all, A Futile and Stupid Gesture is an endearing homage to that magazine it’s based on and its creator. The choices that stir up any negative emotions are just as essential to the movie, and they seem offbeat and weird enough that Doug Kenney would’ve approved.
[i] But this was real life, so can you really call them spoilers?