Doug Kenney never seemed like someone who would be comfortable with being tagged as one of the people who redefined comedy in the 1970s. As one of the founders of the highly influential National Lampoon magazine, he was more likely to mock such a notion than to embrace it. Nevertheless, Netflix is bringing us Kenney’s story with A Futile And Stupid Gesture, based on Josh Karp’s biography of the same name. And given that so much of the talent involved has been influenced by what Kenney did with National Lampoon – or NatLamp as its fans will often shorten it to – that it should comes as no surprise that even though this film does portray some of the warts from Kenney’s life, it is much more a loving tribute to the man and his work.
Much like I, Tonya, A Futile And Stupid Gesture is acutely aware that it is a biopic and takes delight in undermining the genre’s standard conventions. But instead of getting Rashomon-style tellings of key scenes, Wain has an older Kenney in the form of Martin Mull as an on screen narrator, guiding us through the story like a sardonic Our Town Stage Manager. The film opens with what appears to be outtakes of an interview with the older Kenney actively disagreeing with the off-screen director over what he really feels about his life versus what the script would have him say.
NatLamp fans will note almost immediately that the film ignores the contributions of many of the magazine’s first wave of writers and even the third founding member of the magazine, Robert Hoffman. Don’t worry, the film is well aware of these omissions and goes out of its way to point them out as it goes along. It even scrolls a list of liberties it takes with the truth.
And while A Stupid And Futile Gesture is not interested in accuracy or even hagiography, it is interested in making you laugh. The film does follow the story as laid out in Karp’s 2006 biography of Kenney, but highlights the wit and the friendship of Kenney and Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) as well as the struggle the pair had with first getting the magazine established and then later with dealing with it’s success.
Another thing the film delights in is subverting is its own casting. Before you can scoff at the idea of 47-year-old Will Forte playing the 18-year-old, freshly-arrived-at-college Kenney, the movie itself calls out the ridiculousness of it. (Howard Stern did something similar in his autobiographical Private Parts.) But despite the age disparity, the casting of the staff and associates of the Lampoon is pretty spot on. Matt Lucas as Tony Hendra — Who many will remember as the overbearing band manager in This Is Spinal Tap – and Natasha Lyonne as Anne Beatts — one of the few women who could stand toe-to-toe with the male writers – encapsulate their roles well. Those with a knowledge of what went on behind-the-scenes at the NBC comedy series Community will probably get a good chuckle over its star Joel McHale playing the part of a young Chevy Chase. The State’s Tom Lennon has the hardest part, personifying the mercurial and acerbic Michael O’Donohughe. He pulls it off with aplomb, right down to replicating one of O’Donohughe’s most famous National Lampoon Radio Hour bits perfectly. If the brass at Netflix are looking for a companion piece for this film, they could do worse than casting Lennon in an adaptation of Dennis Perrin’s O’Donoghue biography Mr. Mike.