A Futile and Stupid Gesture is my favorite type of biopic, because its one that engages with ideas and influence more than accuracy. It’s the story of Doug Kenney (Will Forte), the highly influential creator of the National Lampoon and write of Animal House and Caddyshack, and how Doug’s early days writing for a college paper led to him becoming one of the most influential comedic voices of all-time. The film occupies the rare space where some of its subjects are still relevant today, and while it leads very hard into the meta zone, the film captures the feel of a National Lampoon movie more than anything.
While in actuality Kenney at 27, the film uses a highly meta device of having a fictionalized older Kenney (Martin Mull) narrating the film, and breaking the fourth wall on what’s accurate and what’s not. This is effective, as Mull’s timing is perfect, and the open satire of the biopic genre is well needed; it’s silly to think that an entire man’s life could fit into a 100 minute movie, and the film keeps thinks light and fun for the most part, and it doesn’t rely on Kenney’s work to provide the jokes. We get a great sense of what a game changer Kenney was, and Forte couldn’t have been a better choice to play the irresponsible, selfish, yet tragic character.
When the story get darker in dealing with Kenney’s depression and suicide, so does the humor, which given its subject is completely fitting. Many of the early scenes involve Kenney’s relationship with National Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson), who’s fittingly a straighter player in comparison to Kenney’s crazed antics. I also really liked Emmy Rossum as Kathryn Walker, a romantic interest for Kenney who provides a sense of happiness for him as his life spins out of control following the stressful production of Caddyshack. There’s a lot of actors recreating comic legends here with fine performances, and credit is due to Joel McHale who plays Chevy Chase, and surprisingly does more than an impression.
More than anything, A Futile and Stupid Gesture feels like a National Lampoon movie (despite a tragic ending). It’s a success story about how a bunch of outsiders upset the established order, and through sheer force of will and raw talent changed the entertainment world, and if that doesn’t scream National Lampoon, I don’t know what does. It’s a breezy, very funny, and quite charming, and surprisingly makes Kenney’s tragic end into something rather poignant. I’m pretty sure Doug Kenney would have loved it. Grade: B+