Film Review: “A Futile and Stupid Gesture”

If you don’t read this film review, I’ll shoot this dog.

Although he revolutionized America’s comedy circuit, Douglas Kenney has an esoteric reputation, for only a few fervid, comedy-obsessed fanatics of today know of his cachet. Back in the 1970s, he was an avant-garde comedy writer, the co-founder of the notorious “National Lampoon” satirical magazine, the creator of hit farces “Animal House” and “Caddyshack,” and the career-launcher of many notable comedians, such as Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Bill Murray. Yet, his story is still invisible to contemporary pop culture. David Wain’s biopic, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” takes a whimsical approach to showcase Kenney’s influence. The film beams with pride, relishing Kenney’s pioneering accomplishments, but unfortunately doesn’t effectively deliver the emotional strand of his narrative, leaving no room for viewers to empathize with the comedic genius.

Will Forte plays Kenney as a sharp-witted and foolhardy man who co-establishes the household reputation of the “National Lampoon” with his best chum, Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson). Wain also casts current, living comedians to play an ensemble of late-great or retired comedy veterans — one being Joel McHale (from “Community”) portraying comic icon Chevy Chase. As Kenney triumphs, he stumbles into a state of misery, burdened by the pernicious pressure of success and the need for people to admire him. Eventually, he repels Henry, who feels he can’t “babysit” Kenney anymore, and his own wife, who catches him cheating on her. But his ambitions worsen his already poor health as the toxicity of attaining Hollywood prosperity and meeting work deadlines drives him into heavy cocaine use. Retreating to Hawaii to cleanse himself, Kenney meets his fate by the edge of the Kauai precipice.

Although the film is supposed to be a commemoration of the humorous Kenney, it comes off as a one-dimensional success tale that misses the poignancy of the character’s collapse arc. It is paced like a checklist, ticking off each of his achievements rather than digging into the nuances, motivations, and melancholy mindset of the beloved comedian. The movie should not have to revolve around the facts of his life, easily found with the click of a mouse. It would be more interesting to glimpse into the ironic side of the plot line which could unveil the despondency of someone so seemingly bright and self-assured.

The choice of the film’s narrator is also nonsensical. Wain has Martin Mull act as an older version of Kenney to chronicle the story, but in real life Kenney passed away at a young age. Mull is ostensibly a gimmick to break the fourth wall. He occasionally enters as the elderly, wise Kenney, commenting on the questionable decisions he made as a young, ambitious entertainer, like how his past drug abuse was irresponsible and how his recruitment for the team of satirists in “National Lampoon” was predominantly white. But the gag is extraneous — a seemingly reckless addition to ensure that people who aren’t aware of Kenney’s life do not suspect the film’s twist ending and his demise.

Even with its flaws, the movie is an earnest retelling of a little-known watershed for comedy; it is illuminating to learn of a mordant, candid group who pushed the limits of humor. Casual comedy fans can see the transition to an anarchic and raucous style of hilarity, and avid comedy enthusiasts can remember a one-of-a-kind funnyman and the collective effort behind his crass and parodic jokes. For instance, the dynamic banter between Kenney and Beard is heartening to watch, which makes their temporary fallout even more dismaying. This crew of comedy experts, including P.J. O’Rourke, Michael O’Donoghue, and Anne Beatts, redefined comedy, an effort that trickles into today’s culture of cutting-edge wit.

Its title taken from a line in Kenney’s “Animal House,” “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” primarily tips its hat to the brilliantly amusing Doug Kenney. Sadly, the film doesn’t delve into his core character, merely giving us a surface-level examination of his life. But, Wain’s movie is definitely watchable. It’s silly and outrageous at times, concluding with a scene of black-attired, guffawing attendees having a high-spirited, unbefitting food fight at Kenney’s funeral. Though this event never occurred in reality, it endearingly pays homage to “Animal House,” so perhaps something so churlish and irreverent is exactly what the king of comedy wanted to spite death.

Grade: C
Director: David Wain
Starring: Will Forte, Domhnall Gleeson, Martin Mull, Joel McHale
Release Date: Jan. 26, 2018
Rated: R

Image Courtesy of Netflix