REVIEW: A Futile and Stupid Gesture (2018)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of A Futile and Stupid Gesture — Directed by David Wain.

Here is a thing that I don’t think Americans have ever thought about. When I was younger and I watched National Lampoon’s Vacation or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and so on and so forth, I had no idea what the hell National Lampoon was. I vividly remember asking my parents several times what National Lampoon was, and they didn’t really have a firm grasp of it either. Honestly, I don’t think most Non-Americans really know about National Lampoon. So, really, A Futile and Stupid Gesture — a film about the rise and fall of the parody magazine — is probably a pretty good idea.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is a comedic biopic about some of the godfathers of frat boy humor — Doug Kenney (played by Will Forte and Martin Mull) and Henry Beard (played by Domhnall Gleeson) — based on Josh Karp’s book of the same name, which tells the story of how National Lampoon, a groundbreaking comedy company, grew from being nothing more than the Harvard Lampoon to being as culturally relevant as it were when it released films like Animal House. On top of that, the film also gives you an idea of how the company launched the careers of some of the most iconic comedy legends of the late 20th century.

“Yeah, so, these actors don’t look exactly like the real people, but, come on, do you think I looked like Will Forte when I was 27? Do you think Will Forte is 27?”

Really, though, this film is about Doug Kenney and his influence on comedy since the 1970s. The film opens with a Doug Kenney quote. It has Martin Mull playing a fourth-wall breaking version of Doug Kenney in his 70s (a self-described narrative device), who comments on plenty of different things shown in the film (some of you may realize why that is, you know, a very interesting choice — and if you don’t you need only glance at Doug Kenney’s wikipedia page to realize why) — there is even a moment where he has to explain to an African-American couple why the National Lampoon didn’t hire African-Americans or more women than they did.

When you realize that the man behind this comedic biopic is the same guy who gave you Role Models and Wet Hot American Summer, then you may not be surprised to learn that this is an appropriately silly and mostly fun movie. In fact, the first forty minutes are so jam-packed with jokes that it almost became slightly exhausting. Almost.

But I will say that one of the issues that I had with the film is that I thought that it almost ground to a halt after the opening forty minutes that featured rapid fire fast-flung comedy. To me, it felt like an example of cinematic whiplash. Unfortunately, my biggest problem with this film was that I don’t think this film appropriately manages to merge and combine both the comedic and serious aspects of comedy in the late 20th century, which Doug Kenney experienced and struggled with.

The film ends with an inappropriate food fight at a sober and somber social gathering, which, however, is pretty perfect for a film about National Lampoon, but the filmmakers make a deliberate choice of not leaning into the sadness of the event that happens at the end of the film. What is serious in Kenney and National Lampoon’s story is not actually dealt with in an appropriately serious manner.

There is an entire section of the film wherein Doug Kenney and Chevy Chase (played by Chase’s Community co-star Joel McHale) do drugs and ruin their lives. Well, at least one of them, sends his life down the drain. When Kenney, a fun guy who is made unlikable through his efforts as a cheater, is no longer together with Henry Beard, what once seemed so silly and fun becomes so dreary. Frat boy humor is only fun, when the frat boys like it. I wish the second half of the film was more than just a predictable send-off for a person who lived life fast and loose.

With that having been said, most of the humor does work and that is due, in large part, to those who play the two central characters. Will Forte is always funny, and his brand of silly humor is perfect for this film. Forte is one of the highlights of the film, and so is Domhnall Gleeson. Gleeson plays Beard and is an excellent straight man to Forte’s funny man.

At first, I feared that Gleeson might be miscast in the role, but this inspired choice is brilliant. Forte and Gleeson have great chemistry and one of the reasons why the second half of the film doesn’t work as well is definitely because Beard is absent in many of Kenney’s antics after their time at National Lampoon. On top of that, you have an excellent cast of new comedians essentially playing their idols, which is something I quite enjoyed. A Futile and Stupid Gesture is a tribute in the form of a mostly enjoyable comedic biopic (made complete with an inventive narrative device) that works best when it is as silly as the satirical magazine would like it to be.

6.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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