I went into A Futile And Stupid Gesture knowing very little about National Lampoon and it’s founding other than it was a magazine that John Hughes wrote for and they’ve made a plethora of comedy movies over the years. Seeing all the amazing comedic talent behind this biopic piqued my curiosity as did the fact that it just premiered at Sundance (I feel like I just did this a few weeks ago, lol). Considering most comedy stems from tragedy, I was eager to see how that might factor into this movie as well.
As stated earlier, this movie chronicles the founding of National Lampoon magazine, but primarily focuses on Doug Kenney’s point of view as he expands this publication into a comedy empire. The story begins with Doug’s childhood, but quickly cuts away to an older version (Martin Mull) who serves as our narrator. This meta-humor continues throughout the movie as we begin again with young Doug (Will Forte) at Harvard meeting his future partner Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson). Their days at The Harvard Lampoon are drawing to a close and Doug has zero desire to do the expected: like go to law school. He comes up with the brilliant plan to start their own magazine, which Henry is apprehensive to do. Of course, Henry comes around and the movie showcases Doug’s obsession with going to the next level and expanding to other mediums all while his personal relationships are deteriorating at various rates.
With a veritable sea of comedic actors, it’s a challenge for everyone to get enough screen time to shine. Of course, both Forte and Gleeson are excellent as the respective founders of the magazine. Gleeson is practically unrecognizable as Henry. His deadpan wit was refreshing compared to his counterpart’s unnatural exuberance. Many minor characters get their moment in the sun as well. Natasha Lyonne as Anne Beatts was particularly hilarious, especially during an encounter with some crude construction workers. Joel McHale was a more likable version of Chevy Chase, and considering the two had worked together on Community and Chase’s reputation, the performance was surprisingly flattering. While those are good, and others had some great moments, my absolute favorite performance was from Matt Walsh as Matty Simmons, the publisher who takes on The Lampoon. He always seems like he’s horrified at what Doug and Henry are doing, but he’s so gullible that he can’t say no or stay mad too long. He has a great run in a “We’re Being Sued By. . .” montage as well.
Normally in a biopic, some level of truth is expected, and you also know that creative license will be taken for the sake of the narrative. Sometimes this license will be with the likeness of a character, other times real people are composited together for the sake of brevity. While every movie in existence naturally doesn’t address this elephant in the room, A Futile And Stupid Gesture addresses it head-on by breaking the fourth wall on numerous occasions. They introduce the writing staff and then cut them down because they didn’t have enough room in the plot, they admit that the actors don’t really look like their real-life counterparts, and they even resort to a scrolling list of what they changed so you don’t have to look it up later. These are definitely elements you’d only see in a biopic about a satirical magazine and its founder. It feels like this lack of accuracy, especially where likenesses are concerned, was deliberate on the filmmakers’ part, and it absolutely enhances the humor of an otherwise standard narrative.
Stylistically this movie shines as well. Not only does it break the fourth wall to make commentary on the nature of truth vs. fiction in biopics, but it takes other creative leaps as well. Elements from the actual Lampoon are used as storytelling devices. “Foto Funnies,” photos depicting real people but with comic book captions and dialogue bubbles, help capture a moment between Doug and his wife Alex (Camille Guaty) that otherwise could have been very melodramatic in any other biopic. You can’t have a biopic without a montage or two. How else are you going to condense important events into a reasonable run-time? The “We’re Being Sued By. . .” montage mentioned previously is just one of many to help move the plot along in this fashion. We get them as they’re building the writing staff, working on pieces, and expanding their brand. Despite their number, it never feels overused and the construction of each one doesn’t feel repetitive.
As much as the meta-humor is apparent from the beginning of the movie, it disappears for a while during the third act and the movie suffers a bit. This could have been an intentional choice as the narrative drifts to the darker and more tragic aspects of Doug Kenney’s life. Ironically, because of the serious turn, I had trouble believing the veracity of certain events in that act because I was just waiting for the jokes to come back. The movie wasn’t afraid to shy away from those more difficult parts, which is to the filmmakers’ credit, but the lack of the meta-humor in those scenes was certainly missed.
A Futile And Stupid Gesture is not an exercise in futility, despite some of the minor lagging issues in the third act. It’s a tongue-in-cheek look at a comedic mind that left us too soon that will have you laughing and wishing something as bold as The Lampoon was around today.