'A Futile and Stupid Gesture': The funny, sad life of Doug Kenney and modern comedy

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Will Forte as “National Lampoon” co-founder Doug Kenney (Photo: Netflix)

If you’re a fan of Caddyshack or National Lampoon’s Animal House, chances are you’ll enjoy at least some of A Futile and Stupid Gesture, a new movie about the man behind those films, Doug Kenney, premiering today on Netflix. Gesture stars Will Forte as Kenney, the man who co-wrote the movies as well as co-founded the National Lampoon — which, I guess I have to remind readers in 2018, was the country’s foremost purveyor of print humor in the 1970s. Director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer) has packed this self-consciously peculiar biopic with more big names and familiar faces than its 90-plus minutes will contain — including Joel McHale as Chevy Chase, Veep’s Matt Walsh as Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons, Emmy Rossum as Kenney’s girlfriend, and Martin Mull as the film’s narrator. Mull is also Doug Kenney as he might have been today had he not died — a probable suicide — in 1980 at age 33. For a comedic biography, this film is frequently very maudlin and quite serious.

Working with a screenplay by John Aboud and Michael Colton, director Wain tells the story of Kenney’s life in the same way it might have been rendered by the magazine Kenney created. National Lampoon marked something different in American humor. Rising up in the wake of 1960s counterculture, the Vietnam War, and Mad magazine, the Lampoon was loaded with bleak, off-color jokes — “black humor,” we called it for a while there — that disrespected all institutions in a way that had never been as extreme. At the same time, it was very much a capitalistic enterprise. Kenney and Lampoon co-inventor Henry Beard (played by Domhnall Gleeson) were Harvard graduates whose white privilege was taken for granted. (Gesture feels it necessary to address this. At one point, a black couple strolls onscreen and asks Kenney/Mull: “So there were no funny black writers in the ’70s?” Kenney/Mull answers, “Oh, I’m sure they were out there. It’s just that we didn’t think to look. It was a different time. In our defense, we also had very few Jews.”) The Lampoon came along at a time when there was an appetite for irreverence and a large audience with spending money who’d buy the magazine, its spin-off books, its comedy albums, its stage shows — and, most profitably, its movies.

In the midst of all this, Kenney was miserably unhappy, a born melancholic who spent his life seeking the approval of his emotionally distant parents. This may be biographical truth — the movie is based on Josh Karp’s 2006 book about Kenney, A Futile and Stupid Gesture — but it’s also the stuff of a thousand other biopics, and so Kenney’s woe-is-me life cannot help but seem clichéd. Realizing this, Wain jerry-rigged a lot of post-modern scaffolding in building Kenney’s story, adding Mull as a Kenney who would narrate his own life with bitter irony, and casting actors who look nothing like familiar figures such as Bill Murray or John Belushi, aside from their period-accurate wigs. (Typical is the casting of Community’s McHale as Chevy Chase: Chase notoriously did not get along well with the cast of Community, thus layering in another sort of joke.)

Joel McHale as Chevy Chase (Photo: Netflix)

The result is that Gesture is a movie that lurches back and forth between satire and sincerity. A lot of the dialogue consists of slightly altered jokes that appeared in the Lampoon and other Kenney creations. Having lived through this era, I can recognize this as stuff I used to find hilarious, but, heard now, seems very dated. That’s the thing about cutting-edge pop culture: Once it has transformed its era, the era swallows it up and looks around for something even newer. Forte is very good at conveying Kenney’s talent and his sadness, but I wonder how many viewers who aren’t old Lampoon fans are going to sit all the way through this wiseguy reproduction of a time gone by.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is streaming now on Netflix.

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