Director: David Wain
Cast: Will Forte, Domhnall Gleeson, Martin Mull
Watch A Futile and Stupid Gesture online in the UK: Netflix UK
David Wain, of They Came Together/Wet Hot American Summer fame, turns his directorial eye to a surprisingly dramatic tale with A Futile And Stupid Gesture. Telling the story of National Lampoon, and key figure Doug Kenney, Stupid Gesture aims to play against the rules of biopic cinema, opting to open with misdirection, breaking of the fourth wall and narration from older Kenney (in the guise of the always excellent Martin Mull). And yet, despite the anarchic creation the film examines, and the desire to be as hardcore-rock-n-roll as the people in the film, Stupid Gesture always seems to find itself settling into conventional biopic traits.
The story of how two Harvard Lampoon writers – Kenney (played wonderfully by Will Forte) and the dryer, more thoughtful Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) – opted to start their own humour publication that would change the world of comedy and culture forever is full of great shock beats and laughs, if you know any history of the magazine. Oddly, Stupid Gesture seems to want to rush through all of these pieces, the iconic articles and covers, the hedonistic-yet-deeply-nerdy lives of the writers and the sense of time and place (New York City in the early 70s). Within the opening 20 minutes, everything is already done – the gun to the dog’s head, the Foto Follies that sparked some strong outrage regarding content – and while Matt Walsh’s publisher character does spiel off a list of groups angry at the magazine, it all feels glazed over, as if the actual magazine isn’t important. Doug Kenney as a character, meanwhile, is lost within the montage.
Having its cake or eating it, the film can never seem to pick, and certainly doesn’t go for both, so as we meet Harold Ramis (Rick Glassman), Bill Murray (an astoundingly good Jon Daly), John Belushi (John Gemberling) and Chevy Chase (Joel McHale playing his Community co-star with both physical gusto and surprising depth), we don’t have the rich luxury of watching humans interacting, but recreating radio and live show sketches, as Will Forte (and sometimes Martin Mull) looks on smiling. And as the majority of the film opts to focus on Kenney’s mental psyche when the work gets too much, and he applies too much pressure on himself to be a success, Forte’s performance does so much of the heavy-lifting that the film, narratively and tonally, doesn’t want to.
It’s not that A Futile And Stupid Gesture is bad, by any means. The bits scattered around are great, the comedy is often strong and full of verve, the drama can be affecting, and Wain’s stylistic touches range from loud beats to subtle changes in frame and scene that play the story so wonderfully. But at its core, Stupid gesture seems to want to tell the story of Doug Kenney, despite opening with Martin Mull actively avoiding telling that story. In the film’s want to be cool and hip and crazy, it ultimately falls into trenches of convention and heads for revering the people involved, which is the one thing National Lampoon would destroy someone for. Doug Kenney, yes, is a figure worth celebrating, but to celebrate in such a manner as to airbrush all his complexities? Why, that’s a futile and stupid gesture unto itself.
A nice way to spend 100 minutes, especially with a cast stacked with game comic talent, A Futile And Stupid Gesture is fine, but it doesn’t scratch the surface. For something with more depth, the rather excellent documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story Of The National Lampoon is recommended for its open and honest look at the publication and its participants.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is available to watch online on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Photo: Melissa Moseley/Netflix