A Futile and Stupid Gesture is still a David Wain movie even though it’s a biography. It’s fitting since it’s the biography of a satirist, so Wain finds self-referential ways to tell the story of National Lampoon founder Doug Kenney.
The film begins with Doug as an old man (Martin Mull) calling out biopic tropes. At first he’s simply making fun of flashbacks and sad music, but later the Mull version of Kenney calls out the film’s whiteness. That’s apropos, and messing with the historical accuracy is fun.
The story picks up with young Kenney (Will Forte) at Harvard. He and Harvard Lampoon colleague Henry Beard (Domnhall Gleeson) start the magazine when they leave school.
The story of the startup is fun. They see Matty Simmons (Matt Walsh) and some of us know where it’s going. He would produce Animal House and the Vacation movies.
As an editor he’s the right blend of hardass and supportive. Montages of the famous National Lampoon covers and the growing readership illustrate the magazine’s progress. A key scene is animated as a Lampoon comic strip.
Then Kenney starts to overextend himself with a radio show and live show too. By the time he’s making movies he’s spiraled into drugs.
This is the classic tale of a tortured artist, but there’s comedy during the harrowing scenes too. It feels like Kenney would want it that way. His girlfriend Kathryn Walker (Emmy Rossum) grounds the gravity of his addiction on the loved ones who want to depend on him. Forte does a great job never making excuses for Kenney and goes to the dark places.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture also hits the National Lampoon movie moments you want to see. The food fight is even a recurring motif before it ends up in Animal House.
I could have seen a movie about the making of Vacation but this wasn’t the Chevy Chase story. He is in it though, with Joel McHale nailing the way Chase says everything under his breath.
The National Lampoon story is done right by comic filmmakers who clearly have reverence for the irreverent.
A Futile And Stupid Gesture is now streaming on Netflix.