I didn’t have high hopes for the new bio-comedy, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” a not-quite-all-star remembrance of the comic genius behind “The National Lampoon” and “Animal House.”
After all, Doug Kenney, the magazine’s co-founder, was ably memorialized in the documentary, “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” just a couple of years ago. Rounding up actors to play the important figures in that story, including Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis and Michael O’Donaghue, would intimidate anybody, even the shameless David Wain, writer and director of “MADtv,” “The State” and “Wet Hot American Summer” infamy.
But “Futile” which would have been better titled “Three Food Fights and a Funeral,” is laugh out loud funny. It laughs at its own inadequacies (a mid-movie crawl rapidly listing all the writers, performers, et al who made the magazine famous but whom they couldn’t squeeze into the film) and mocks the elitism and near-racism (no black, Asian or Hispanic folks in this Harvard Mafia take on comedy) of the days when the R-rated humor magazine was born. It’s scruffy and amusingly cheap looking, at times.
It is, as the new verb sums up, perfectly “Netflixable.” Which is why Netflix made it.
Will Forte is Kenney, the whip smart comic anarchist from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, who teamed with his urbane, pipe-smoking classmate Henry Beard (the omnipresent Domhnall Gleeson) to transform The Harvard Lampoon into a more riotous read than it had ever been, and then refused to grow up after school by launching The National Lampoon in the middle of the turbulent ’60s.
Their pitch, rejected by most of the big names in publishing, was a raunchy/funny niche mag that filled the void between Mad Magazine and The New Yorker. The publisher of Weight Watchers and assorted family titles (Matt Walsh) was the one suckered into it. Thus, was a comedy empire and a whole brand of funny business born.
We worship at the shrine of Monty Python, even in America, as the template for smart, irreverent and ironic humor. But Kenney and Beard created a whole comic ethos that followed — just as absurdist, but distinctly American, giving birth to “Saturday Night Live” and “Animal House” and all that spun from them. Forte’s wonderful in the part, never more than in showing Kenney and indeed cinematic comedy’s rapid decline in the late 70s thanks to the pervasive cocaine usage rampant in comedy circles and in Hollywood.
Remembering what a mess Kenney and Harold Ramis’s “Caddyshack” was and is, a cult movie for stoners now, a coke and corporate compromised calamity, is a valuable service Wain’s picture does.
Famous covers — the “Buy this Magazine or the Dog Gets It,” pantie-free “Yearbook” cheerleaders — are revisited, as the mag perfected darkly comic conceptual sight gags. The brightest minds working there,were a colorful lot — Tony Hendra (Matt Lucas), sassy Anne Beatts (Natasha Lyonne) and “Mr. Mike,” the deathly-dark Michael O’Donaghue, later of “SNL.”
Of all the impersonations, Thomas Lennon‘s spot-on send up of the balding, sunglassed cynic Donaghue is the one that dazzles. Matching Belushi’s fearless lunacy or Chevy Chase’s studied pratfalls is trickier on even a “generous” Netflix budget.
Martin Mull is cynically warm as the older Kenney, narrating his life story and that of the magazine with a jaundiced eye for every failing, personal, cultural or cinematic, exposed by the movie.
The witty/profane office banter, the free-wheeling brain-storming that created unforgettable sight gags, the stage show “Lemmings” and the “National Lampoon Radio Hour” is clever enough. And the bitterness at losing their pre-eminence, first to “Saturday Night Live,” which raided the Lampoon’s writing staff and radio players, and then “Airplane!,” which upped the comic ante for the pace of jokes, is palpable.
Look for cameos from assorted “Animal House” survivors (there are a few) mixed in with recollections of that chaotic film shoot, a movie which changed American cinema comedy forever.
And remember the old saying about the sad clown as the film recalls Kenney, a funny man who accomplished much and had everything but peace of mind and (the film says) a father’s affirmation.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, nudity, drug abuse, profanity
Cast: Will Forte, Martin Mull, Domhnall Gleeson, Natasha Lyonne, Annette O’Otoole
Credits: Directed by David Wain, script by Michael Coulton and John Aboud, based on the Josh Karp book. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:41