Director: David Wain
Screenplay: John Aboud, Michael Colton
Starring: Will Forte, Domhnall Gleeson, Martin Mull, Joel McHale, Thomas Lennon, John Gemberling, Matt Walsh, Rick Glassman, Jon Daly, Seth Green, Emmy Rossum
Runtime: 101 Minutes
The wide-ranging impact and influence that National Lampoon has had over popular culture (and in particular comedy) in the 20th century is kind of mindboggling. Beginning as a long running humour magazine that span out into a multimedia exercise covering film, radio, live theatre and other such mediums, gathering talents such as John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner, all of whom subsequently went on to appear on Saturday Night Live and have careers in other media – and yet ask any young person today what National Lampoon was and at a push they might be able to recognise the title above the popular Vacation movies.
It’s kind of sad how unceremoniously the brand declined in both prominence and cultural value, due to many factors both of from the internal workings of the company at large to the cultural and societal shifts that kind of left the bawdy and playful but undeniably sexist and offensive stylings of their parodical comedy to the wind.
Based on the book of the same name by Josh Karp, A Futile and Stupid Gesture is a well-meaning biopic that follows the Will Forte as comedy writer Doug Kenney, during the rise and fall of National Lampoon, alongside partner Henry Beard played by Domhnall Gleeson, who meet at college and bond over their shared passions for the surrealist and absurd.
As far as traditional biopic narratives go, the film works without necessarily excelling in its goals with a screenplay by John Aboud and Michael Colton, but it allows itself a leniency to the reality of events thanks to its continuous method of addressing the audience with an unneeded narration from the actual Douglas Kenney (who hasn’t lost his sense of humour). This narrative device the film uses as a sort of ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for working around the truth, in aspects such as the compression of events in the timeline, for circumstances of dramatic effect or the very fact that some of the chosen actors to portray real-life celebrities and individuals just don’t look like their counterparts.
Its pretty playful overall even if it doesn’t afford many voices to its cast of dozens – in particular the women – in favour of focusing on the central pair. Forte is genuinely good here with a bold zaniness to his wild-eyed expressions and deadpan delivery, while Gleeson (who just seems to be turning up in everything at this point) is also accustomed with acting as a character with a continuous affect.
The structure of events overall is a little too haphazard even for a subject matter such as this, like the writers were attempting to hit something tonally familiar to the National Lampoon’s golden years film work but didn’t quite get there, and it all wraps up rather quickly on a weak coda.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture isn’t exactly great but as far as passable, spirited and vaguely informative biopics go it certainly works. Director David Wain is an old pro with comedy dynamics like this and mostly holds it all together, and Forte really brings his A-game to the material.