A Futile and Stupid Gesture (2018)

4 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If you’ve read my review of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” you know that one of my biggest pet peeves in comedies is the kind of self-referential humor I referred to as “Kind of Aware But Not Quite.” The definition I used is “when a film is so self-aware that it has a character point out the clichés, thinking that commenting on it will make it less of a cliché.” But if you also read my reviews of “The Big Short” and “Deadpool,” you know I’m not against all self-aware comedy and that sometimes it can work to a film’s advantage. Really, it’s a matter of how well it’s written in order to work effectively.

There is a moment midway in David Wain’s hyper-aware biopic “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” that made me both laugh loudly and smile widely. It’s when the film’s narrator does something I think a lot of movielovers wish would happen in many other “based-on-a-true-story” biopics: he lists all of the things that happened in real-life that were not focused upon for this story and cut either for a shorter running time or “…just because [we] didn’t feel like it.” That’s the kind of poking-fun at the creative liberties of biopic storytelling that made the whole film work for me.

“A Futile and Stupid Gesture” tells the story of Doug Kenney, the influential but disturbed comedic genius who co-founded National Lampoon magazine and was responsible for launching the careers of many famous comedians such as Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, and many others. He had a lot of things going for him…and also a lot of things going against him, such as drug dependency and commitment issues. For a biopic about such an artist to work, you might expect something along the lines of Richard Attenborough’s “Chaplin” or Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” Instead, we get something not as tedious or as heavy-handed—an ultra-meta comedy that pulls no punches in inside-jokes and fourth-wall breaking.

Mind you, it doesn’t ignore the heavier material; it just chooses not to dwell on it so much. It seems like the movie Doug Kenney himself would have wanted about himself.

Doug Kenney died at age 33 (to this day, people are unsure if he fell from a cliff or jumped off). But we still have a narrative device to tell the story, walk into scenes, and talk directly to the camera: a version of a modern Doug (played by Martin Mull). He’s there to reassure the audience that everyone knows they’re making a farce about something true to life, even going as far as to call out the actors playing comedic icons—“These actors don’t look exactly like the real people, but do you think I looked like Will Forte when I was 27? Do you think Will Forte is 27?”

And yes, Will Forte does star in the movie as younger Doug, who takes up a majority of screen-time. As the story begins, Doug is celebrating his time at Harvard University, creating the Harvard Lampoon into something more outrageous and wacky. Once the college days are over, however, Doug wanders aimlessly, dragging his friend/writing-partner Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson, wonderfully droll here) along with him. Wanting to continue making funny magazines for a career, Doug and Henry launch National Lampoon magazine, filling it with the blackest comedy and the most disgraceful material, resulting in them gaining popularity (even if many groups end up suing them for being offensive). The magazine helped launch the careers of many promising writers (most of which aren’t focused upon in this movie, which Modern Doug acknowledges) and also, with its hour-long radio program (The National Lampoon Radio Hour), put many comedians in proper notice. The supporting cast mainly consists of game actors portraying comedic icons, the most effective of which are Jon Daly as Bill Murray, John Gemberling as John Belushi, and Joel McHale as Chevy Chase (fitting, seeing as how McHale and Chase were co-stars on the TV series “Community”).

As time goes on, and many of his colleagues continue their careers with “Saturday Night Live,” Doug sets his sights on something higher, like movies. Thus, he co-writes “Animal House,” which becomes one of the highest grossing movies of all time, which is a big accomplishment for a lowbrow comedy. His next film is “Caddyshack,” directed by Harold Ramis, which is Doug’s way of sticking it to the country-club snobs his father associated with. But executives aren’t seeing his vision, he’s not proud of how the movie is turning out (especially after seeing “Airplane!” which is a gigantic comedic hit), and his depression and drug dependency gets worse as a result. (Side-note: the scenes that recreate the atmosphere of the makings of “Animal House” and “Caddyshack” are spot-on; I would’ve like to see more of that.) There are people in his life that want to help him, like his second wife Kathryn Walker (Emmy Rossum) and Chase. But nothing anyone tries to say or do to help him is enough.

OK, that sounds a little depressing. And honestly, it is. But would you rather the film just ignore it altogether? That’d be even worse, wouldn’t it? So, props to director David Wain and writers John Aboud & Michael Colton for doing what they can with this kind of material while also trying to have fun with it as well. “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” ends with Young Doug and Modern Doug meeting each other at Doug’s funeral and attempting to influence the mourners to “laugh, dammit!” Somehow, I get the feeling Doug Kenney would’ve liked the ultimate result of this scenario.

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