For those who don’t know the story of American superstar comedy genius Doug Kenny, the new Netflix released film A Futile and Stupid Gesture may seem bizarre, problematic, off-putting or out of place. The film is primarily a biopic, a blend of mostly true and some fictionalised reporting on the life of Doug Kenny and the comedy empire he built in the 1970s. Kenny, played by former Saturday Night Live cast member Will Forte, co-created the National Lampoon magazine alongside his best friend at the time Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) then went on to write Animal House and the smash hit comedy Caddyshack.
From the earliest stages, National Lampoon was wildly successful. The magazine was raucous and hilarious, it was crude, ribald, and horribly offensive and yet still, the Lampoon was a stroke of comedy genius. It was a subversive, anarchic take on satirising the dark political state of America at the time. Furthermore, the National Lampoon became a launch pad for some of comedy’s biggest names and Kenny has even sometimes been credited with inspiring the idea for SNL. So why, despite his overnight success, is Doug Kenny not a household name?
A Futile and Stupid Gesture attempts to answer this question, and tell the story of an often overlooked, yet incredibly talented and funny person. The director David Wane is clearly a fan of Kenny and wanted to do justice to his story by telling it in a manner Kenny himself would have enjoyed. Because of that, he makes several odd, or off-putting choices. Casting Martin Mull to play an older version of Greg Kenny as the omniscient narrator is not only a narrative device, but a means towards justifying some of the other potential critiques of the film – such as casting 47-year-old Forte to play 20-something Kenny, or mockingly acknowledging the blatant lack of diverse representation in the Lampoon writer’s room.
The film’s self-awareness of its own absurdity is entertaining, but ultimately doesn’t excuse the fact that this is simply a mediocre film. Unlike Wane’s other work, such as the brilliant Wet Hot American Summer, A Futile and Stupid Gesture gets lost in the genre fusion between comedy and biography and never really lands on its feet. Throughout, the film’s comedy feels tired and in the end we’re left wondering how much we actually learned about Doug Kenny’s life.