An appropriately silly National Lampoon origin story.
It’s difficult to think of a decade more influential to comedy and pop culture than the 1970s, when some of the greatest stand-up comedians and television personalities were first introduced to the world, and shows like Saturday Night Live signaled a seismic shift in the way people could consume sketch comedy. At the beginning of all of that, too, was National Lampoon, co-created by Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, and Robert Hoffman as a spin-off to the Harvard Lampoon.
It was through the Lampoon magazine, stage show, and radio show, that Kenney and Beard brought the world some of the very first material from future comedy giants like Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, John Hughes, Chris Miller, and more. Of course, National Lampoon’s influence and work didn’t stop there either, with several of the team members going on to write and produce some of the most beloved and successful comedy movies of all time, like Animal House and Caddyshack.
Director David Wain’s A Futile and Stupid Gesture charts its way tactfully through this monumental period of time, while also serving as a loose biopic of Lampoon co-creator, Doug Kenney (Will Forte), who was responsible for shaping Lampoon’s voice and style of humor, alongside his Harvard colleague, Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson). And it’s to A Futile and Stupid Gesture’s credit that it manages to have a widespread appeal, and will likely be an enjoyable viewing experience for both those already interested in the history of comedy and those who may know next-to-nothing about Lampoon or Kenney going into it.
The film’s biggest weakness, however, is in the casting of Will Forte as Kenney, who is in nearly every scene of the film and who is sold as being an eccentric, absurd comedy writer, tortured genius, and experienced ladies man. But while Forte is able to bring life to Kenney’s quirky sensibilities, he never quite is able to believably portray the darker or slicker sides of the character. When cast in the right roles, Forte can often be a film’s strongest component, but it’s hard not to feel like he may have been miscast throughout several stretches in A Futile and Stupid Gesture.
Wisely, though, Wain and co. have surrounded Forte with a number of talented veteran players, including Gleeson as Beard, the intellectual and lovable partner to Kenney, who brings a level-headedness to the formation of National Lampoon that proves vital to its success. As in all of his previous work, Gleeson shows just how gifted of an actor he is, managing to bring some real emotion and depth to Beard. One scene later on in the film between Kenney and Beard particularly shines because of the work that Gleeson has put into developing the character, even despite several gaps throughout when he’s nowhere to be seen.
Some of the film’s other notable players are Emmy Rossum as Kenney’s girlfriend, Kathryn Walker, who Kenney woos one night in a bar during a particularly dark time in his life, and Joel McHale as Chevy Chase, who in addition to being a star of his own, was one of Kenney’s closest friends/peers. While both actors aren’t really left with all that much to do, they make the most of their appearances and their bonds with Kenney are integral to making the film’s final act as impactful it is.
However, the film also relies heavily on a kind of twist/narrative function that ends up feeling more like a needlessly manipulative attempt to pull at the heartstrings than it does an organic or vital piece to the film’s story. Not to mention that the mere existence of it may leave some viewers more confused than moved by the film’s final few moments. Whether or not that ruins A Futile and Stupid Gesture will likely vary depending on the viewer. Fortunately, I had already bought in enough to the rest of the film’s characters and emotions to let that particular blunder stop me from still enjoying it.