A Futile and Stupid Gesture
Starring: Will Forte, Domhnall Gleeson, Martin Mull, Emmy Rossum, and Natasha Lyonne
Directed by: David Wain
Written by: Micheal Colton and John Aboud
Based on the Book: A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever” by Josh Karp
Review by Justin Partridge
Comedy is easy, but living is hard in A Futile and Stupid Gesture. The new biopic of prolific comedy writer Doug Kenney from David Wain and the good folks at Netflix that’s equal parts star-studded biopic and genuinely human look at the comedic mind. Writers Michael Colton and John Aboud distill the meticulous reporting of the book into a moving, self-aware, and best of all, super goddamn funny love letter to the budding alt-comedy scene and the brilliantly broken man at the center of it.
Gleefully playing with conventional biopic storytelling almost instantly, Will Forte and Martin Mull play Doug Kenney, the co-creator of the National Lampoon and eventual writer of comedy monoliths Animal House and Caddyshack. Both actors living and narrating their own life. This is just the first of many meta turns the movie takes. It plays with biopic story beats and then instantly comments on them. Adding an extra layer of humor to the already heaping pile of comedy that just comes with the story.
“You think I look like Will Forte when he was 27? Do you think Will Forte is TWENTY-SEVEN?”, Doug stonily quips into the camera as the other Doug awkwardly looks into the scene from the background. It is really funny stuff. It sets it apart from other star-studded biopics. Ones we’ve have been subjected to that have relied too heavily on broad performances and paint-by-numbers plotting (*COUGHdisasterartistCOUGHCOUGH*).
But while the movie overall adheres to standard peaks and valleys biopic narrative structure, Colton and Aboud’s script really works overtime to foster empathy with Kenney while also never letting him off the hook for his poor behavior. David Wain, a skilled comedy director having gifted us Wet Hot American Summer and the CRIMINALLY underrated They Came Together, also shares the same empathy and raw compassion. He stages many of the scenes with a grace. Allowing for the comedy to hit while also revealing the rawness that Kenney’s drive and constant need for attention came from.
Thankfully he has a veritable wealth of actors in which to do that with. Anchored by the adorably broken Will Forte who displays a genuine range here as an actor while still delivering his trademark absurdist wit. His main sparring partner is a droll Domhnall Gleeson who plays Kenney’s writing partner Henry Beard. He replaces the usual long-suffering wife character with a stuffy, but emotive creative partner that has all the longing and heartbreak of a romantic relationship throughout the movie.
Unfortunately, the movie does fall into the trap of undeserving both its female characters and the African-American comedy scene in the 1970s. However, both the writers and Wain are aware of it. They, at least, make an effort to humorously and humanely comment on it. Characters like Emmy Rossum’s Kathryn, Jackie Tohn’s pitch-perfect Gilda Radner, and Natasha Lyonne’s Anne Beatts provide a much needed feminine energy to the vignettes they blow through like gales. Sadly, their presences always seem to be ten minutes too short as the film moves into its LA focused second half. That said though, the movie’s biggest laugh comes from SNL’s Chris Redd and comedian Liz Femi. These two straight up ask Martin Mull’s old Doug if there were any funny black people in the 1970’s. Or why there was only one funny woman, so you win some you lose some, I suppose.
The good outweighs the bad throughout A Futile and Stupid Gesture. It stands as one of the rare best case scenarios when it comes to biopics. One that stays true to the spirit of its subject, while giving a warts and all look at the man’s story and having a damn fun time doing it along the way. Stocked to the brim with some of your favorite character actors and whisking audiences through a hilariously heartfelt and engaging underdog story with flourish, A Futile and Stupid Gesture is another unconventionally entertaining winner for Netflix.
Verdict: Definitely see it. Even if you aren’t a comedy fan or even if you just loved The State, A Futile and Stupid Gesture is an engaging true-life experience that soberly, but lovingly and playfully shares one of comedy’s great untold stories. Basically, come for the jokes but stay for Joel McHale’s scarily spot-on Chevy Chase and John Daly’s amazing Bill Murray.