‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’ Review: National Lampoon’s Netflix Biopic
The problem with A Futile and Stupid Gesture, Netflix’s new film about the National Lampoon magazine and its brilliant but mercurial co-founder Doug Kenney, is the same problem with most biopics: They’re formulaic movies about people who broke all the rules. This particular biopic plays with the form a little bit; its narrator, Martin Mull as the older Doug, breaks the fourth wall to comment on the action and reveal the parts of the movie that stray from the historical record. But otherwise, you don’t need to know anything about the history of the Lampoon for A Futile and Stupid Gesture to feel extremely familiar. Its tale of a spectacular rise and epic flameout has been told so many times before in so many different settings.
There are some highlights — mostly the lead performances. Mull is perfect as the sarcastic senior Kenney; Will Forte has all of the film’s funniest lines as the younger Doug who built the Lampoon with his college buddy Henry Beard (an unrecognizable Domhnall Gleeson). As portrayed in A Futile and Stupid Gesture, Doug and Henry’s relationship at Harvard was just like Otter and Boon’s in National Lampoon’s Animal House; constant wisecracks and partying. After graduation, Doug convinces Henry to join him in New York where they launch a national version of their college humor magazine with funding from a straight-laced publishing executive named Matty Simmons (Matt Walsh).
The early scenes between the three men in charge of the Lampoon (at least in this version; a third founder has been completely erased from the narrative) are charged with witty banter and exuberant creativity. Then the Lampoon expands into radio and books, and big-name comedians like Seth Green, Jon Daly, and Joel McHale show up to play Lampoon greats like Christopher Guest, Bill Murray, and Chevy Chase, respectively. But in a 100-minute movie, there’s barely enough time for them to say a line or two and have their names pop up on screen (that last part’s really important because these actors look and sound nothing like the people they’re playing).
That may have been a deliberate choice designed to tear down the artifice of the traditional biopic, except the moment all these famous faces appear is also the exact point A Futile and Stupid Gesture morphs into a very traditional biopic. Even with all the Lampoon alumni, this is really Doug Kenney’s story (it’s based on a book by Josh Karp called A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever). The more Doug succumbs to Hollywood excesses (women, cocaine, money, cocaine, drugs, playing tennis with Chevy Chase, cocaine), the more the film succumbs to the trappings of every other biography about a great man. He’s the tortured genius who can’t handle success; he’s the addict whose talents are ruined by substance abuse; he’s the family man who drives the people he loves away.
There’s even a subplot about how Doug’s parents were always disappointed with him and favored his late brother. Someone in the movie actually says “He did not like his son, the wrong one died!” which is an almost exact duplicate of a line mocking biopic clichés from the spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. It is incredible how many movies made in the 10 years since have been rendered immediately dated by that film. Here is another.
David Wain, whose previous work as a director (Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models, They Came Together) bears a significant Lampoon influence, should be the ideal filmmaker to tell this story. But whatever the reason, Wain’s interpretation is way too reverent a portrait of the irreverent men of the National Lampoon (and they’re pretty much all men — something the movie does address). These guys put a dog with a gun to its head on the cover of their magazine with the caption “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.” Where’s that kind of edge in all of this? Talented performers and a few fun scenes aside, this tribute to Doug Kenney too often looks like the sort of thing his magazine was created to make fun of.