Directed by: David Wain
Premise: The story of Doug Kenny and Henry Beard (Will Forte and Domhall Gleeson) as they create National Lampoon magazine and later branch out into radio programs and Hollywood movies and redefine American comedy.
What Works: National Lampoon magazine was created in the 1970s and the publication became a cultural touchstone and the foundation of a media empire that spawned movies like Animal House and Vacation and launched the careers of performers like Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Chevy Chase, John Belushi, P.J. O’Rourke, and John Hughes. The film A Futile and Stupid Gesture dramatizes the foundation of the magazine, focusing on editors Doug Kenny and Henry Beard. As portrayed in the film, Kenny and Beard were friends at Harvard and they rejected the stuffiness of the university’s bourgeois culture and resisted the expectation to get nine-to-five jobs. The movie dabbles in multiple storytelling genres. It is a going-into-business story, a Hollywood cautionary tale, and a bromance all at once. The film succeeds on all fronts but by far its most effective elements concern the relationship between Kenny and Beard. The two of them had opposite personalities with Kenny the impulsive extrovert and Beard the responsible introvert. Their differences made for a cohesive whole but as work, fame, and drug use took their toll the relationship deteriorated. Their friendship tracks with the assent and decline of the magazine and the filmmakers use it to give the story a narrative structure. One of the most impressive things about A Futile and Stupid Gesture is the way it balances comedic and dramatic priorities. There is a lot of comedy in this film but it’s anchored by a serious dramatic center. These people were serious about comedy and the film reveals how humor can be a form of resistance to the inanity of mainstream society. In that respect, A Futile and Stupid Gesture captures the anarchic spirit of National Lampoon, recreating some of their legendary moments and employing an unusual style that’s consistent with the look and feel of the magazine. A Futile and Stupid Gesture is also a nostalgic piece and the story takes the viewer behind the scenes of the making of Animal House and Caddyshack and Saturday Night Live. Fans of those shows will delight in these sequences but A Futile and Stupid Gesture goes beyond fan service. By placing the behind-the-scenes moments in a broader narrative, A Futile and Stupid Gesture recontextualizes these films and sheds new light on how we feel and think about them.
What Doesn’t: A Futile and Stupid Gesture was preceded by the 2015 documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead which covers most of the same material. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead provides a more comprehensive story of National Lampoon, its influence, and the careers it jumpstarted. A Futile and Stupid Gesture works as a drama and fills in the humanistic parts of Doug Kenny and Henry Beard’s story and so the two films are complementary works. The production values of A Futile and Stupid Gesture are sometimes artificial. The sets and costumes occasionally look like a movie set; that’s in keeping with the film’s unconventional style but it also creates an unreality that works against the illusion of drama. The actors playing some of the famous National Lampoon alumni like Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Rodney Dangerfield (Jon Daly, Joel McHale, and Erv Dahl) don’t look much like their real life counterparts although they do capture their voices and mannerisms in a way that is recognizable.
DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: A Futile and Stupid Gesture is a very good dramatization of the foundation of National Lampoon. It’s best viewed as a double feature with Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead but the movie works on its own as a funny and at times tragic story.
Episode: #693 (April 8, 2018)