National Lampoon Magazine was once the most important comedy magazine in America. It was simultaneously vile, inappropriate, and incredibly insightful in its satire. The level of talent assembled to write for the magazine was incredible but it remains underappreciated. Perhaps no individual embodies this underappreciation more than Doug Kenney, one of the comedy geniuses who co-founded the magazine. Kenney is the focus of “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” a new comedy from director David Wain. The result is an absurdist, meta-comedy about the beginning of a comedy revolution.
“A Futile and Stupid Gesture” begins with a voice over from a modern Doug Kenney (Martin Mull) describing his last couple years at Harvard. We are quickly introduced to college-aged Kenney (Will Forte) and his best friend Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson). They are finishing up their last year at Harvard and aren’t quite sure what their next step is going to be. They’ve written for the Harvard Lampoon for years, and that’s when the idea strikes Kenney. What if they license the name and take the magazine national? Soon after meeting with Matty Simmons (Matt Walsh) they get funding and hit the ground running.
From this point on, we are treated to a litany of insane moments and tangents to showcase the immense talent that passed through the Lampoon doors. The screenplay from Michael Colton and John Aboud is a meta-comedy piece of genius. The film openly acknowledges the absurdity of trying to find actors that can look like the icons they’re playing. At the same time, it also pokes fun at the “birth to death” biopic concept. We’re treated to a cavalcade of comedians playing comedians. Some of those included are Thomas Lennon, Matt Lucas, Natasha Lyonne, Jon Daly, and Rick Glassman. Playing diverse comedians is difficult, but the ensemble makes each a unique cog in the ensemble.
Forte is very strong as Kenney, although he occasionally drifts into his “Last Man on Earth” performance. For the way the role is written, Forte delivers some subtleties along the way. His ambition and excitement to be in the role are palpable, and you can feel his passion through the entire film. He truly wants to honor Kenney, and his performance brings out an anti-hero side to the comedian.
There are two performances that rise above the rest of the film. Domhnall Gleeson is superb as Henry Beard. He absolutely disappears into the role and delivers many of the films best lines. He has all the nuance of Beard’s subdued style, while never feeling like he is above it. Gleeson’s performance is likely to get lost later in the year, but there are few actors who will inhibit their characters the way Gleeson does here.
The surprisingly strong second performance comes from Joel McHale as Chevy Chase. McHale has a fair amount of screentime despite not showing up until about midway through the film. Chase and Kenney were incredibly close, and McHale and Forte deliver excellent chemistry to make this feel real. McHale had years next to Chase on “Community” and he surprisingly captures the legendary comedian in some of his prime roles. McHale carries the arrogance and self-confidence of Chase in a very believable performance.
While the film is an extremely interesting rumination on the legacy of Kenney and “National Lampoon,” the film is rather kind in its depiction. There are moments in the film that show the struggles that Kenney went through, especially when it comes to drug use. That said, they’re still relatively tame in comparison to other films drug use during the same period. In many ways, a “Wolf of Wall Street” or “Boogie Nights” approach would have been more accurate to the level of drug use.
Even in the film that exists, there are moments that really pop due to the drug use. One that comes to mind is a scene in Hawaii where McHale imports cocaine in tennis balls. There are some scenes at Kenney’s house where drugs are passed around freely. There is drug use, but most of the time it is displayed in a comedic or even non-consequential light. The film works with the tone that’s present, but it’s hard to not think about the film that might have existed with a more serious tone.
There are few films that can shine a light on the unappreciated comedy pioneers of the sixties and seventies. Kenney is undeniably one of those, despite writing classics like “Caddyshack” and “Animal House” within a 3-year-span. Forte, Wain, and the rest of the cast do their best to honor the icon, and the result is an extremely fun meta-comedy. It’s well worth the watch, especially for those unaware of the influence of the magazine. There have been few more interesting comedy icons than Kenney. He’s finally getting the credit he deserves.