A Futile and Stupid Gesture is a Netflix original film that takes some chances. Netflix knows it has some leeway for experimenting in film, and this one was a particularly obvious choice for a little outside-the-boxing. It’s a biopic of sorts for Doug Kenney, the founder of National Lampoon. He was a funny guy who coloured outside the lines and this movie is a fitting tribute to him; it keeps you guessing.
Told in retrospect and narrated by an older, wiser, omniscient Doug Kenney (played by Martin Mull) who watches the events of his life unfold with a little disdain and a huge grain of salt. This device allows for a fair amount of editorializing and joke making at his own expense.
Will Forte plays Kenney, ages 18-33, and despite the fact that he’s 46 in real life, he’s a great choice. He can pull off the sadness and the savage humour, playing it straight, breaking the fourth wall, talking directly to us, talking to himself. Doug Kenney was the Harvard editor of the Lampoon, and he had such an epically good time just fucking around with his good buddy Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) he decided to just keep it going and took their little humour magazine national. And as if the phenomenal success of the National Lampoon wasn’t enough, they expanded into radio shows, during which they enlisted the talents of Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, Christopher Guest, and Gilda Radner. And then they started writing movies like Animal House and Caddyshack. And while some might feel content with having their dreams come true and writing the most successful comedy movie EVER, Kenney never can be. He tries to fill the hole in his heart by shooting stuff up his nose. It’s a circuitous route that doesn’t work very well, but not for lack of trying.
Director David Wain assembles an incredible ensemble to help him out, and by incredible I mean, lots of recognizable faces, but not necessarily well-suited for the parts. Joel McHale gets to play Chevy Chase, and even though the two were on a TV show together for many years, it’s like McHale doesn’t realize he’s a real person with tonnes of footage on which he could base his performance. Instead he does Joel McHale in a bad wig and unless someone is loudly calling him Chevy, I forget which one he’s supposed to be.
I admire this movie more than I like it. I think it’s okay, and at times quite funny, and probably worth a watch if you don’t mind weird stuff. But the thing is, the writers and director are a complete mismatch. The writing is unconventional and wacky and striving for something extra but the director is a little more conservative and a little less inspired so the whole thing just sort of clashes awkwardly. Forte and Gleeson are kind of wonderful though – maybe a little futile, but definitely not stupid.