It’s hard not to trace every significant comedic achievement of the past fifty years to the work of the National Lampoon. Not only was their work influential, subversive, and transgressive, almost everyone they touched went on to change the industry forever – their actors went on to become the original cast of both Saturday Night Live and This Is Spinal Tap, and their writers went on to create The Simpsons, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and The David Letterman Show. A film about the magazine’s game-changing influence was inevitable, especially considering the troubled life of founder/genius Doug Kenney. However, due to how high the nihilistic bar was set, such a feat was always a fool’s errand. And while the film never shines as bright as it should, or feels as daring as the magazine that inspired it, it does feel like this was the right group of fools to take on this story.
In 1970, Harvard graduates/satirists Dough Kenney (Will Forte) and Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) decided to create a surrealist, satiric magazine for the generation trapped between Watergate, Vietnam, and abuses of power. Thanks to a Murderer’s Row of talent, the magazine becomes the game-changing National Lampoon. However, as the magazine’s status continues to rise, Kenney’s anxiety, depression, withholding childhood, and rampant drug use end up driving him to the brink of insanity. Narrated by an older Kenney (Martin Mull), the film traces the tragic genius’ life, downfall, and eventual death.
In a lot of ways, there’s nothing new here. The life of Doug Kenney is boiled down, as many biopics often do, to just the bullet points – a rather square life story for a rather unique individual. However, director David Wain is no ordinary director – having cut his teeth directing rule breakers like Role Models and Wet Hot American Summer, Wain understands that to tell a story about a man who refused to fit into the mold, the film itself should refuse to fit into the mold. He frames the story with a rather cool pseudo-documentary style fourth wall shatterer, introducing the idea of a Doug Kenney who didn’t “fall” off a cliff to narrate the story and provide self-aware commentary. When confronted with actors playing the famous comedians of old, Older Doug admits that they don’t look anything like the actors but, “Do you really believe that Will Forte is 27?” The joke works not only as an admission of the changed facts of history, but also because we get to see a pissed off Will Forte in the background reacting to the barb. We also get a running laundry list of the film’s inconsistencies, which feels remarkably unique even if something similar was used in The Big Short three years ago. The technique also allows the film to critique the Lampoon’s sexist and vaguely racist treatment of female and African-American comedy writers not hired by the magazine through two modern minority comedians challenging Older Doug for refusing to hire them (although while this joke is brilliant, they kind of let it slide with “It was the 70s,” which is both accurate and kind of letting things slide when pushback would be more interesting). And when Older Doug explains the framing device to the Ghost of Doug Kenney during his funeral, we get Will Forte’s spot-on delivery of: “Well that’s a choice.” When you mix in a trading card rundown of the Murderer’s Row of Comedy that the Lampoon hired and a variation on the Foto Funnies to show the disintegration of Kenney’s marriage, the filmmaking on display seems to elevate and highlight the story’s natural charisma.
What’s also brilliant about the film is the way it captures the grueling creative process, especially amongst the more insane creatives that changed the game. The film intricately carves out the creative process, showing what it takes to take a silly sense of humor and a brilliant mind in order to turn it into a national sensation. It takes us into the office fights between Henry and Doug as Henry’s sense of business evens out Doug’s off-the-wall zaniness, allowing the magazine to reach its full potential. This can be best seen when they battle over the choice of art directors. While it may have made sense for Doug to hire the comedic stoners with MAD-esque drawings, the decision to cut the duck mascot and hire artists who would “play it straight” allowed the joke to appear funnier. After all, a cartoon dog with a gun to its head isn’t funny – a real dog staring panicked at the revolver is. Breaking down the creative process like this gives viewers a look at things they often wouldn’t have given a second glance. Similarly, the film gives the viewer a great look inside the mind of a creative person. It accurately captures the emotions of someone with talent at the time of graduation but is unsure of how to use that talent, and the scorn he receives from those around him. All of this builds up to an expertly crafted monologue/sequence showing the paranoia and stress the constant creative/financial battles take on the artist’s soul, from the increasingly frantic office activities to the “necessity” for foreign substances to keep yourself going. If there’s one thing this film nails perfectly, it’s the stresses of trying to create while remaining ahead of the curve.
Unfortunately, for every smart decision the film makes, there’s at least one major misstep. No matter how cool and kinetic Wain makes this film, it still boils down to the exact same bullet points of every single biopic about a tortured genius. Hell, the film even tries to paint it as if all of Kenney’s genius came about because of his daddy issues. God, as if we haven’t seen that plot done to death. They even go as far as to borrow the “wrong kid died” plotline from Walk the Line that was so expertly spoofed in Walk Hard. Perhaps if a trope has been so done to death it’s literally named in the parody, it’s time to retire that trope. Meanwhile, while Will Forte does an adequate job portraying Doug, he really doesn’t have a good grasp on how to portray the man’s final days. His performance as a man coked out of his mind and completely losing control seems more in tune with a Very Special Episode than it does with this comedic/dramatic framing of a man’s final days. And perhaps most egregious of all, whenever the film wants to portray the Lampoon as “edgy” and “fun-loving,” they show them break the tension and win over the crowd with a food fight not once, not twice, but three times. That’s not even the reason they used that plot in Animal House, and yet here we are. Throwing food at each other at a funeral and a business meeting. And somehow this works. There are a lot of bad decisions in this film.
However, while the film isn’t remarkably well-written, I keep coming back to the way the film captures the Lampoon’s f*ck-you-itevness, and the way they managed to appeal to a generation. The film keeps cutting to the groups of stoners and young people who were eating this sh*t up, and it really helps you understand why this magazine was so important. In an era of unrest and betrayal by the adults in their lives that they were supposed to trust, an entire generation found solace in a group of young, genius assh*les who were pissing off the status quo (demonstrated in a wonderful sequence listing the people suing/complaining about the magazine for its material) and giving them something to rebel for. As Kenney puts it in the film, “Kids need something to read while they’re getting tear gassed!” In this spirit, the film manages to find ways to nod to the ingenious spirit that changed the world. These nods could be through subtle wordplay, such as when Kenney gives his future wife a tour of the Harvard Lampoon and explains, “This is the William Randolph Hearst staircase. It’s named after John Updike.” It could be through variations on things we already know quite well, such as Jon Daly as Bill Murray performing the Nick the Lounge Singer routine (with Paul Scheer as Paul Shaffer in tow) in order to narrate Kenney’s breakdown. Or it could be a blatant tip of the hat paying off a forty-year joke by having Martha Smith show up as Babs the Tour Guide. These nods are not only Easter Eggs for people who like to recognize things; they are both visual, verbal, and metaphorical nods to exactly why this brand of comedy was so important in the first place. No matter how many flaws it may have, no film this clever could ever be without merit.
With a laundry list of actors and comedians, some are destined to stand out while others seem to feel rather average or forgettable. Will Forte tries his hardest as the beloved creator, but while he does get a few zingers, and definitely looks like Stork, he never truly captures the spirit of Kenney, or makes it his own. Meanwhile, Martin Mull never plays anyone beyond Martin Mull, but that’s not a bad thing. He’s a comedy legend, and between his line delivery and the fact they got him to sing at the end, I consider his performance a net good. Far and away the best performance in the film comes from Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Henry Beard as the droll straight man to Forte’s antics. Gleeson makes Beard feel like a true comedic genius, as opposed to Forte’s impression of one, and Gleeson is the one who comes out feeling three-dimensional. As for the rest, Thomas Lennon turns out to be the perfect casting choice for the radical wild card Michael O’Donaghue, feeling properly humorous and recklessly unpredictable. Matt Walsh will make you grin with his eager-to-please performance as the publisher who gets in over his head when he signs two college kids with nothing to lose. Natasha Lyonne should be in everything, and her portrayal of the magazine’s head female writer and ingenious comedienne Anne Beatts is proof of that statement. And in case you were wondering if he’d learned anything from his years on Community, Joel McHale does the best Chevy Chase impression you’ve ever seen. While it would be a waste of time and space to list every performance I remember and love from the film, especially due to their varying degrees of success, a few that are memorable, even if they aren’t great, include Daly as Bill Murray, Matt Lucas as Tony Hendra, Jackie Tohn as the ever-talented Gilda Radner, Emmy Rossum as Kathryn Walker, Seth Green as Christopher Guest, and Nelson Franklin as P.J. O’Rourke.
In the end, A Futile and Stupid Gesture adds nothing to the National Lampoon mythos. There’s nothing here you wouldn’t already know from the remarkable documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead. There’s nothing to this film other than a bunch of funny lines and a general sense of cleverness. However, while a National Lampoon may need to be better, this may be the version that the Lampoon deserves. It’s wild, it’s reckless, it’s dumb, it’s funny, and it’s intentional useless – the exact type of content that the Lampoon thrived on for years. I can’t help but feel like Doug would look on this film and just nod while saying, “Fair enough.” As a fan and a loyalist, I want to hope for better. But as a realist, this film fits right in with what my heroes were trying to accomplish. This was, indeed, a futile and stupid gesture, yet one laced with love and affection. And for now, that’s good enough for me.