While you’ve likely heard of the name National Lampoon, or may count Caddyshack or Animal House to be among your favorite movies, do you know who Doug Kenney is?
Until now, Kenney – the comedy genius who co-created National Lampoon – has remained mostly unknown, while the comedians that were launched from it (among them Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Chevy Chase) have come to overshadow Kenney’s own fame. A new movie, A Futile and Stupid Gesture (now streaming on Netflix) highlights the life of Kenney and the wild rise of this new school of comedy. Both a silly send-up as well as a sentimental tribute, Futile is sure to delight both purist comedy nerds looking to get their history fix of the birth of National Lampoon as well as those just looking for some low-stakes laughs.
Based on the novel of the same name by Josh Karp, the story begins back in Doug’s (Will Forte) undergrad years at Harvard, where he meets fellow wise-cracking slacker Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson). Together, the duo would create the first iteration of the Lampoon – a comedy collective that was “really just an excuse to party.” It’s Kenney who wants to keep the party going post-graduation, convincing the more level-headed Beard to create a national magazine of their irreverent comedy for all juveniles. As it turns out, there was a counter-culture of college-aged kids waiting to embrace a publication like this, whose shocking magazine covered politics and culture through raunchy comics and cheeky nudity.
It’s around this time in the movie that we start to meet the people who would form National Lampoon’s original writing staff (Thomas Lennon, Natasha Lyonne, Tony Hendra). One of the hilarious devices that A Futile and Stupid Gesture utilizes is a hilarious use of meta-awareness, especially when it comes to commenting on the actors who are playing the real-life comedians of Christmas past. “Modern Doug” (Martin Mull) – who would be Doug in “present day” if he was still alive – pops up like a one-man Greek chorus throughout the movie to explain such things as, how although he (Mull) and “Will Forte” both play iterations of Doug but look nothing alike, that that really doesn’t matter because do we really even believe that Will Forte is even twenty-seven?
It’s this level of self-reflexive non-seriousness that director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer) wonderfully incorporates into the movie, which conjures the anarchic and playful spirit of the Lampoon and back into the movie itself. As a biography movie, Wain does service to both Kenney and the story by hitting every major milestone of the Lampoon’s successes and wobbly setbacks, straddling the balance of funny and worry. The flighty Kenney moves on to bigger and grander ideas: a National Lampoon radio hour, which introduces new players Bill Murray (Jon Daly), John Belushi (John Gemberling) and Chevy Chase (Joel McHale), who would go on to star in such films like Animal House and Caddyshack.
It’s around this time that A Futile and Stupid Gesture explores Kenney’s darker period. It doesn’t shy away from showing his crippling anxiety and growing competition (a certain late-night weekend sketch show is accused of stealing all of his players). Flashing back to a childhood Kenney experiencing the early death of his brother and internalizing feelings of inadequacy brought on by his demanding parents, he would battle with drug use that, while stimulating his own creativity, would eventually lead to his own demise.
But not to bring down the mood, as Wain and Kenney and the rest of his wild team would surely object to if they felt their story was getting too sentimental, adding further delight to the movie is a smattering of visual sequences in which Wain brings iconic Lampoon magazine covers to life right before our eyes. If Wain was attempting to bring the purest and most honest form of Kenney’s story to life, then he wildly succeeded. If he was looking to make a silly, wacky comedy with a little bit of heart for audiences everywhere, then he made that too. With A Futile and Stupid Gesture, we finally see the merry madness that Doug Kenney went through in search of a laugh – however futile and stupid it may have been.
101 min. ‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’ is available to stream on Netflix starting this Friday, January 26th.