'A Futile and Stupid Gesture': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Funny and peculiar.
1/26/2018

Will Forte stars as Doug Kenney, one of the founders of National Lampoon and co-writer of 'Animal House' and 'Caddyshack,' in this biopic now on Netflix.

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival and then available on Netflix practically the next day, the true-story-inspired comedy-drama (accent on the comedy) A Futile and Stupid Gesture recounts the life and high times of Doug Kenney, the now-nearly-forgotten co-founder of the seminal (accent on…never mind) humor magazine-cum-movie brand National Lampoon. Mostly incarnated by Will Forte (with assists from Martin Mull as an older version, and twins Frank and Morgan Gingerich as the 12-year-old Doug), Kenney comes across here as a classic biopic character: gifted, charismatic, original and audacious, but also a demon-ridden sometime asshole, especially to the women in his life.

At its best, the film crafts a reasonably honest portrait of countercultural types (albeit mostly with Ivy League educations) like Kenney and co-conspirator Henry Beard (the ubiquitous Domhnall Gleeson) colliding and colluding awkwardly with the establishment in order to subvert it. Of course, there are bust-ups and failures along the way, but Kenney manages to get it together just enough to edit a successful magazine, hire and cultivate writers and performers who would go on to be the first generation of Saturday Night Live, and as the culmination of a life’s work, write and produce those pinnacles of late 20th century culture, the films Animal House (1978) and Caddyshack (1980).

If you find that kind of scabrous, scatological, scurrilous satire hilarious, then this film will scratch that itch. However, perhaps fittingly given the downturn in the repetitive final act, over the long haul the joke starts getting old in every sense. Only so much amusement and drama can be extracted from watching people snorting line after line of cocaine. Unless, perhaps, you are watching the film while snorting line after line of cocaine or ingesting another, more legal drug.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is very much of a piece with actor-director David Wain’s cult-film-turned-Netflix-franchise Wet Hot American Summer, from the general quickfire humor, deadpan delivery style, common castmembers, subtle evocation of period and right on down to the ongoing gag of having actors in their forties playing twentysomethings just by putting them in absurdly unconvincing wigs. This means Forte spends nearly the whole film sporting either a long center-parted shoulder-length mop, or later an even longer and considerably less attractive tightly pony-tailed version in the same dirty dishwater color.

But while Wet Hot knowingly winks at its audience a lot, Futile goes further still by breaking the fourth wall with Mull as the older Kenney speaking straight to the camera or, at times, slightly to the right of the camera as he answers questions directed at him by an offscreen voice (Wain’s, in fact.) Cantankerous and potty-mouthed, Mull as Kenney pops up repeatedly throughout to editorialize on the story.

For instance, a montage showing the hiring of various National Lampoon writers, their names emblazoned across the screen, ends as he eventually dismisses another half-dozen. "Sorry, guys, maybe if one of you’d been black, we could have included you," he offers. Cue a black man and woman (Chris Redd and Liz Femi) stage left, who approach and ask Mull’s Kenney if there were really “no funny black writers in the '70s?” and “just one funny woman?” Shrugging and citing the times, he admits, "I'm sure they were out there, it's just that we didn’t think to look." But if it's any consolation, he notes they hardly had any Jews, either.

It's possible there will be a few viewers who already know about Kenney's biography, especially those who read Josh Karp's book of the same name on which Michael Colton and John Aboud's screenplay is based. That select few will have some pertinent questions about the film's Tristram Shandy-style structure. Another contingent may merely wonder, if they recognize often-employed character actor Mull, why he's playing "the real" Kenney. All is revealed in the end in a move that, if nothing else, shockingly abandons the traditional rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-redemption four-part trajectory to which nearly every biopic slavishly adheres. It's an interesting change of pace, and the final food fight is an inspired touch.

On the other hand, the film relies more on assertion rather than proof that Kenney's contribution to comedy history was significant, ground-breaking and worthy of a feature-length film. Quite frankly, even allowing for his Zelig-like connection to many more famous names, on his own terms he's not always that likable, even if this kind of sweet smart-ass creep is right in Forte's wheelhouse, a comic homonym to his character on the TV series The Last Man on Earth.

Elsewhere, what ought to be fun is seeing both seasoned and less familiar actors play more renowned people throughout once the story gets to the period when Kenney starts Lampoon radio and stage spinoff Lemmings. This performance troop introduces in its early roster Gilda Radner (Jackie Tohn), Bill Murray (Jon Daly, who doesn’t look quite right but nails the Murray-as-lounge-lizard-singer voice with some fantastic shtick), Christopher Guest (Seth Green, blink and missed), John Belushi (John Gemberling), Harold Ramis (Rick Glassman) and, above all, Kenney’s best buddy and, according to the evidence here, chief enabler, Chevy Chase (Joel McHale, great at the pratfalls).

All the aforementioned are certainly germane to the story, but you can’t help wondering if they weren't, would Kenney's story have been told at all?

Production companies: Principato-Young Entertainment, Abominable Pictures
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Will Forte, Domhnall Gleeson, Martin Mull, Neil Casey, Jon Daly, Nelson Franklin, John Gemberling, Rick Glassman, Seth Green, Max Greenfield, Harry Groener, Camille Guaty, Ed Helms, Joe Lo Truglio, Matt Lucas, Natasha Lyonne, Joel McHale, Annette O’Toole, Lonny Ross, Emmy Rossum, Jackie Tohn, Matt Walsh, Finn Wittrock, Elvy Yost
Director: David Wain

Screenwriters: Michael Colton, John Aboud, based on the book by Josh Karp
Producers: Peter Principato, Jonathan Stern, Ted Sarandos
Executive producers: Ben Ormand, Pauline Fischer, Collin Creighton, Michael Colton, John Aboud, David Wain, Edward H. Hamm Jr., Sean McKittrick, Ed Helms
Director of photography: Kevin Atkinson
Production designer: Jonah Markowitz
Costume designer: Debra McGuire
Music: Craig Wedren

Editors: David Egan, Jamie Gross, Robert Nassau
Casting: Allison Jones
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

101 minutes