American popular culture was in the midst of an anything-goes rebirth when Harvard grads Doug Kenney and Henry Beard decided to skip law school and take the university’s ninety-year-old humor publication national. Their demon spawn of a magazine, National Lampoon, burst onto the scene in 1970, scandalizing adults and hitting the subversive sweet spot for a disillusioned generation that had just given up on the peace-and-love ethos of the 1960s. It wasn’t just anti-establishment. It was anti-everything. Viciously so. Backed by one of the greatest comedy writing staffs ever assembled, the Lampoon made light of the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, the women’s movement and anything else that was seemingly beyond parody. Their no-sacred-cows approach became the new comedy standard – one that’s only now being reevaluated.
The creation and operation of National Lampoon, how it became an unlikely multimedia sensation and how its co-creator Kenney couldn’t cope with his well-earned success is the focus of David Wain’s A Futile and Stupid Gesture. It’s a conventionally raucous biopic that knows it’s conventional and hopes to get away with said convention by occasionally breaking the fourth wall to goof on its deployment of these hoary tropes. It’s narrated by a hypothetical older version of Kenney (Martin Mull) who didn’t fall from a cliff to his death in 1980, which freshens up the proceedings more than is maybe needed. Wain isn’t doing anything revolutionary here, but, as a successful comedy writer himself (who, via The State, knows a thing or two about shaking up this medium), he hooks into an uncomfortable truth about the need to be funny, and how this addiction can never be fully sated.
The greatest challenge before Wain and his screenwriters, John Aboud and Michael Colton (working from a book by Josh Karp), is that the behind-the-scenes stories about this era are not only well known to its target audience, but very, very funny in their own right. Making a movie about yesterday’s brilliantly funny people with many of today’s brilliantly funny people sounds precarious, but the film wisely darts out of the gate by starting at a late-‘60s Harvard bacchanal that looks and sounds awfully familiar. It’s here that we meet Kenney (Will Forte) and Beard (an unrecognizable Domhnall Gleeson), whose bratty above-it-all banter was clearly the inspiration for Animal House’s Otter and Boone. Kenney’s devilishly quick wit, paired with a rakishly nerdy charm that somehow worked very well for him, is on full display as he woos Alex Garcia-Mata (Camille Guaty), to whom he will soon be briefly married. Kenney and Beard have just had a minor publishing success with their Tolkien spoof Bored of the Rings, and, with graduation approaching, Kenney is desperate to keep the comedy party rolling.
Kenney convinces Beard to go in on National Lampoon with him, and they eventually hook up with skinflint publisher Matty Simmons (Matt Walsh), who sets them up in an office and allows them to do their very worst. Wain has a blast introducing the writers (Thomas Lennon and Natasha Lyonne are dynamite as Michael O’Donoghue and Anne Beatts), and, before he gets into the meat of the story, runs a quick scroll of every instance of dramatic license he’ll be taking throughout the rest of the film. Yes, he knows it didn’t happen exactly like this. With that out of the way, it’s time for the fun part.
And that’s the biggest relief with A Futile and Stupid Gesture: it’s a very funny movie, uproariously so at times. We get to see O’Donoghue’s portable file drawer filled with ideas for bits, Beatts verbally roasting construction workers, Brian McConnachie (Neil Casey) being a complete fucking weirdo and Tony Hendra (Matt Lucas) bombing, and it all feels right. We hear snippets of O’Donoghue’s “The Churchill Wit”, see the shooting of the infamous dog cover and watch Kenney casually wreck his marriage by sleeping around with co-workers (the end of which is staged as a “Foto Funny”). Wain brings us into the party, and it looks like it would’ve been a glorious hang.
Kenney eventually spreads himself too thin by getting involved with the Lampoon’s radio show, forcing him to take an abrupt sabbatical. It his first reckoning with the emptiness at the center of his life, and it’s a void he could never fill. He can’t even enjoy the runaway success of Animal House for long. While his second marriage, to Kathryn Walker (Emmy Rossum), appears to be a better match at first, the only remedy for the always-ready-to-pounce depression exists in a bottle. Chevy Chase (Joel McHale, who obviously studied his former Community co-star closely) adds a new reckless wrinkle by getting Kenney hooked on cocaine, and, alas, we know where this is headed.
Wain is typically at his best when indulging his every absurdist whim, but his affection for the material allows him to sidestep many of the samey pitfalls of the biopic genre. The obligatory scenes are still there (e.g. the wife coming home from a trip to find a raging party at her house), but they’re all tinged with a palpable melancholy that Wain introduces at the outset when we see Kenney as a child being driven by his parents to his brother’s burial. On the way to the cemetery, young Doug watches glumly from the backseat window as kids and high school jocks and cheerleaders frolic. There’s a sense resignation in this moment. The fun is fleeting, and we’re all heading to the same place. Wain suggests this is the idea that Kenney couldn’t shake, so he just kept the good times rolling until he couldn’t outpace the bleakness anymore.
Wain doesn’t speculate as to the nature of Kenney’s tragic tumble. Harold Rami’s clever assessment, that Kenney “fell looking for a place to jump” makes its way into the movie (as does O’Donoghue’s brutal line about being disappointed that Doug wasn’t holding hands with Chevy when he went over). The cruelly abrupt end to Kenney’s life was perhaps appropriate for a man who could find laughs in genocide, but Wain sends us out on an upbeat note with a perfectly stupid and futile gesture that Kenney would’ve appreciated. It’s a moving love letter to an unsung creative genius from one of the brilliant children he never got to meet.