There will be those going into A Futile and Stupid Gesture, currently streaming on Netflix, who are National Lampoon aficionados. There will likely be nothing about the seminal adult humour magazine, or its creators, that they didn’t already know or that could possibly shock them. So, you can only imagine their surprise when a certain someone introduces the film whilst fighting with what sounds like the film’s director, David Wain (Role Models).
The character is in fact being played Martin Mull, who takes the audience for a whistle stop tour of all the major highpoints and low blows that made up the real man’s life. Fitting in with the irreverent humour of a man who also gave the world Animal House and Caddyshack, he questions why things are being shown, quibbles about whether scenes work, and rags on the fact that his younger self is being played by Will Forte. On that last point, the older character is even willing to call us out for questioning any of the casting. “C’mon, you think I looked like Will Forte when I was 27?” he quips. “You think Will Forte looks 27?” If that all sounds unbearably smug, then A Stupid and Futile Gesture isn’t going to get any better for you.
David Wain is perhaps best known for his genre-aping movies; whether it’s ‘teen comedy’ Wet Hot American Summer or ‘romantic comedy’ They Came Together. So, in a way, you can see in A Stupid and Futile Gesture as an opportunity for the director to bite his thumb at the tropes of a biopic. Written by screenwriter Michael Colton (The Penguins of Madagascar) and former Harvard Lampoon member turned comedian John Aboud, the film is extremely self-aware and takes to its narrative with a chainsaw. Everyone on board gives it their all, even if they’re merely playing hyper-realised versions of the people they’re portraying. Forte jumps around like a long-haired Groucho Mark, Joel McHale plays his former Community co-star Chevy Chase as if he were actually Clark Griswold, and John Gemberling’s John Belushi is merely someone who shouts “FOOD FIGHT” at opportune moments.
Most of the time, all of this makes for an entertaining film, and the thing swings by you so quickly it’ll make your neck break. However, there’s always the nagging feeling that it could be trying harder. A large part of that might be down to A Stupid and Futile Gesture never taking time to breathe. Like Doug Kinney, it’s constantly on the go and, again like Kenney, feels like it’s trying to hide something. In the case of the real-life Kenney, it was depression, drug dependency and possibly crippling imposter syndrome. In the case of the film, it’s an unwillingness to address these issues with any depth.
Let’s be frank, there’s a toxic masculinity to the aforementioned Animal House and Caddyshack, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the film refuses to acknowledge emotions or problematic behaviour. When a character is asked to address the lack of diversity in the original Lampoon line up, he makes a flippant excuse camouflaged by ‘ironic’ anti-Semitism. That’s the kind of depth you’re dealing with here. The rest of the time, we’re treated to some episodic re-enactments of Kenney’s life, which even the film admits are either somewhat fabricated or truncated to speed up the narrative. None of this, sadly, scratches the surface of what made Kenney who he was.
If you’re looking for a slightly more serious approach to National Lampoon and Kenney’s part in it, then your attention is best directed to the 2015 documentary, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead. However, if you’re willing to forgive its numerous flaws and complete refusal to be serious, A Stupid and Futile Gesture proves itself to being anything but. Well, just about.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10