‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’ Takes an Honest Look at ’70s Comedy History
Doug Kenney flamed out early. A child of the 1950s, he produced comedy in print, radio, and film from the late ‘60s through his death in 1980 that has become classic, either through its enormous influence on the comedy that followed or as works in their own right (“People really like Caddyshack,” Martin Mull intones, playing Doug Kenney as an imaginary old man, “They’re kind of annoying about it, actually”). Kenney was one of the casualties of the late ‘70s comedy scene, doing massive amounts of blow with Chevy Chase and panicking about how to follow up the enormous success of Animal House. The new movie A Futile and Stupid Gesture knows that Kenney’s name is largely unknown, even to fans of his work. While National Lampoon remains a recognizable comedy brand, it’s arguably never matched its comedic peak with Kenney arguably at the reigns. In the new movie A Futile and Stupid Gesture, director David Wain and star Will Forte untangle what made the needy and enigmatic Doug Kenney tick, recreate some of National Lampoon’s signature chaos, and mostly successfully make a movie about comedy with genuine laughs that avoids many (but not all) of the pitfalls of the genre.
David Wain has been making some of the silliest comedy movies produced over the course of the last fifteen or so years. With few exceptions, his movies have rarely allowed themselves much emotional sincerity, even when romance is at the center of the story (as with his romcom farce They Came Together). A Futile and Stupid Gesture represents, to that end, a minor departure for Wain. His love of filling a frame with anarchic action is a perfect fit for a movie about National Lampoon, but he allows himself here to slow down and open up to the poignancy of a figure who seemed to hate sincerity in his own work. Kenney was a brilliant writer but also a tremendously depressed individual with substance-abuse issues. Wain doesn’t shy away from either side of this, and the movie is full of moments that combine the two. Gesture’s second half in particular deals heavily with Kenney spiraling out of control, and the gravity of his problems doesn’t take a backseat to the wit of the jerks Kenney hung out with — it at least rides shotgun. In some ways, this melancholy is most like Wanderlust of any of Wain’s other works: the situations are heightened and the jokes never stop, but the stakes and characters feel more real than in the Wet Hot series or The Ten (both of which, like most of Wain’s movies, are hilarious). The movie is bookended by food fights. In both cases, the food fights aren’t just callbacks to Animal House; they serve to break the very real tension of difficult moments for Kenney and for his collaborator Henry Beard (played with stoic depth by Domhnall Gleeson).
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is roughly divided into two segments based on Doug Kenney’s social circle: the Henry Beard years and the Chevy Chase years. For most of the former, Kenney is a philandering workaholic with a quip or bit of physical business for every occasion. He and Beard are dynamic and their collaboration illuminating. Once Beard leaves the Lampoon, the movie ceases to follow his actions, a jarring reminder that he isn’t co-lead of what’s so far been something of a two-hander. For much of the latter portion of the movie, Kenney is increasingly consumed by cocaine addiction and career insecurity, freaking out after seeing SNL and Airplane! that National Lampoon’s comedy had been co-opted. It’s perhaps appropriate that the more dire Kenney’s circumstances the less fun the movie can be, but it’s hard in the back half not to miss the energy and detail of the first half’s focus on the publication of the magazine. Perhaps it’s because Kenney tended to get more selfish and demanding as he got older (to be fair, he was into harder drugs), but it’s difficult to appreciate the gravity of his unfortunate and untimely passing. In real life, of course, it’s a tragedy. As a function of the movie, we lose Doug the character right as we’re really starting to tire of him.
Rather than downplay the lack of diversity at National Lampoon as the source book does, A Futile and Stupid Gesture attempts to reckon with it, with mixed success. The entire movie is narrated by Martin Mull, explaining events as though Kenney had lived to 2018 to explain them himself. In one scene, he is confronted by two young Black people, who demand, “So there were no funny Black writers in the ‘70s? And just one funny woman?” “Oh, I’m sure they were out there,” Kenney explains, “It’s just that we didn’t think to look. It was a different time. In our defense, we also had very few Jews.” This is a fairly funny and true riposte (Josh Karp, author of the book A Futile and Stupid Gesture, repeatedly attempts to explain away the Lampoon staff’s antisemitism), and it’s bolstered by a moment a bit later on when the movie lists differences between the movie itself and real life, including “Everyone was a lot more sexist and racist than they appear to be.” It’s somewhat relieving that the movie doesn’t ignore these issues with Lampoon (even before P.J. O’Rourke steered the magazine harder into the Comedy You Can Jerk Off To skid), but even there it has its missteps. Always engaging, Natasha Lyonne is all-but wasted as Anne Beatts (much of this movie’s terrific cast often feels wasted, which is an unfortunate function of Wain’s tendency to pack his movies with tremendous comic talents in even the smallest roles), but the movie’s greatest injustice is perhaps to Amy Ephron, described only as “[Michael] O’Donoghue’s girl” in one passing line about a quarrel between O’Donoghue and Tony Hendra (played by Thomas Lennon and Matt Lucas, respectively). Amy Ephron had written for National Lampoon, and reducing her role to “O’Donoghue’s girl” is a missed opportunity for this movie to correct some of the sexism it acknowledges in the Lampoon’s staff.
Being a David Wain project, a handful of cast members of The State make appearances. The one in a central performance, Thomas Lennon, is terrific as Michael O’Donoghue. Lennon works a lot and often in roles that don’t ask for much from him. Here he captures O’Donoghue’s impossible temperament and steely antipathy. Likewise, Jon Daly and Joel McHale are perfectly cast as Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, respectively. In almost all cases (as Mull-as-Kenney mentions), actors in the movie are much older than the characters they portray. This is certainly not a problem (and Forte, older than Doug Kenney ever was, does a tremendous job of portraying Kenney aging a decade), but it is somewhat worth interrogating. Would a movie on this subject matter, with a cast primarily in their 20s, have better conveyed the energy of young Harvard grads reinventing American comedy? Again, this movie is full of terrific performances and there’s no one poorly cast (it’s hard to imagine any other established comic performer right now playing John Belushi than John Gemberling); this is just a hope to the future of the genre that more stories about daring young people use casting to express the anxieties one can embody at that age.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture substantially improves upon the book that serves as its source material. It is more willing to engage critically with the work produced by National Lampoon, and many of the cleverest asides quoted to these figures just work better on screen than on the page. David Wain’s absurdist comedy may owe a great deal to National Lampoon, but National Lampoon now owes David Wain a debt as well. Little of National Lampoon’s output from the ‘70s has aged especially well, and it’s unlikely to find a new audience any time soon. With this movie, Wain and writers John Aboud and Michael Colton have helped condense a great deal of significant comedy history into a funny and honest narrative that conveys the highlights. There’s plenty more about this era in comedy to be said, so one can only hope that the next one focuses a little less on solipsistic white guys who almost exclusively hire other solipsistic white guys. To make a movie about, for example, the impact of The State decades after this era of National Lampoon would unfortunately not look much different.
Photo by John P. Fleenor/Netflix.
Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.