All biopics start from a grain of truth, the essential building blocks of the subject, and then weave an imaginative backstory complete with a heartwarming or inspirational narrative arc.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is not that kind of biopic.
Certainly, the period piece directed by David Wain does cover the life and career of one one-and-only Doug Kenney, who co-founded The National Lampoon and co-wrote National Lampoon’s Animal House as well as Caddyshack all before the age of 33.
When he died. Slipped and fell off of a cliff, or jumped, died he still did.
That shouldn’t be a spoiler alert to comedy nerds, who were raving about this Netflix Original film years before its release this January, just drooling over the casting announcements.
Which include Will Forte as Kenney, Domhnall Gleeson as his best friend and writing/business partner Henry Beard, Tom Lennon as Michael O’Donoghue, Matt Lucas as Tony Hendra, Natasha Lyonne as Anne Beatts, Neil Casey as Brian McConnachie, Jon Daly as Bill Murray, Nelson Franklin as P.J. O’Rourke, John Gemberling as John Belushi, Rick Glassman as Harold Ramis, Seth Green as Christopher Guest, Jackie Tohn as Gilda Radner and Joel McHale as Chevy Chase.
Wain also employs Martin Mull as current-day (?) Kenney to serve as narrator.
Which leads to this interchange in the beginning of the film…
Wain, off-camera: “How about if you say something like, ‘I’m the creative force that redefined comedy.’”
“No, that’s blowing smoke up my own ass. I can’t do that.”
“What if you say, ‘I was the man who changed comedy forever, but I couldn’t change myself.’”
“Really? Blow me.”
The movie opens and closes on death, but that’s not the fun stuff about one of the funniest people of his generation, is it?
So instead we breeze through Harvard, where Forte in full Forte mode meets cute with Gleeson as Beard and they become partners in comedy crime.
The film winks at the other crimes against society and film truths throughout, from the lack of diversity among the Lampoon staff, to the casting choices themselves, followed by a fast-moving scroll of the other exaggerations, outright lies, and liberties taken for the sake of movie-making magic.
One thing that’s not exaggerated is how Saturday Night Live essentially co-opted and poached the Lampoon’s stars and writers to launch in 1975, perhaps only because Kenney was too preoccupied or distracted to get the Lampoon’s own TV idea off the ground.
Wain uses Lampoon gimmicks such as foto-funnies, Lampoon Radio Hour jingles and more to reveal the layers of Kenney’s psyche.
In the wake of losing out on SNL, Kenney pivoted to movies himself, and we learn here just how much Animal House and Caddyshack were rooted in Kenney’s own feelings about class and culture, about snobs and high-brow vs. low-brow, and about his own feelings toward his father.
Ultimately, the anxieties, the tortured feelings of never being good enough, of always having of top yourself, those were too much for Kenney to bear. Whether he couldn’t find support or couldn’t bring himself to ask for help, we didn’t get those answers in real life. Or in this movie, really.
What we do still know is how much we loved his work, in writing and onscreen, and how much he was loved.
And for that, we can be grateful.