A Futile and Stupid Gesture didn’t really need to exist. After all, the rock ‘n’ roll story of the National Lampoon was brought to life with much greater depth in Douglas Tirola’s fantastic 2015 documentary, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. So, when it was announced that a feature film was being made based on Josh Karp’s book of the same name, the news felt a little old hat, and also seemingly impossible given that they’d have to cast a bunch of icons who were never going to match the larger-than-life personalities, most of whom have created the bedrock for modern comedy.
Of course, those feelings changed when it was confirmed that David Wain was set to direct. Arguably the grandfather of modern meta comedy, the veteran filmmaker has carved out a niche for himself with his subversive brand of absurdism, particularly in relation to traditional Hollywood storytelling. He bit his thumb at rom-coms with 2014’s They Came Together, tossed mud on yuppies with 2012’s Wanderlust, gave religion a run for its logic with 2007’s The Ten, and stained everyone’s rose-tinted lenses with 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer. That’s all without mentioning his even wilder exploits online.
So, if anyone could justifiably bring the National Lampoon story to life as a feature film, it’s Wain, whose meta approach to narrative might eschew the precious tropes that come with such a film. In other words, by coming into the source material with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, Wain could get away with anyone treating it like a tried and true historical drama, the ones you’d expect from your Spielbergs, your Finchers, or your Scotts. And really, that’s the only way this was ever going to work, namely because that’s exactly what the story insists upon … it’s in the very nature of the National Lampoon itself.
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To some degree, that’s exactly what Wain did with A Futile and Stupid Gesture. Right from the start, he employs an incredibly self-aware Martin Mull, who introduces himself before explaining how he’ll serve as both the film’s narrator and a modern-day version of National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney — you know, had he not passed away in the summer of 1980. Within minutes, he shatters any pretense of the film taking itself seriously, stating, “Yeah, so these actors don’t look exactly like the real people — but come on, you think I looked like Will Forte when I was 27? You think Will Forte looks 27?”
It’s a very Wain-y move that delivers by the end, but not without struggling along the way. The issue is that the story isn’t particularly funny, even if it’s dealing with very funny people doing very funny things. Kenney’s arc is tragic, a narrative brimming with addiction, depression, and the cruel irony of feeling isolated amid fame and fortune. Wain pivots accordingly, but the film strains to accommodate the weight that comes with each shift, and that’s mostly because John Aboud and Michael Colton’s screenplay only offers a cursory glance at the demons taunting Kenney behind the scenes.
To his credit, Forte does an exceptional job elevating the drama with a performance that ably mixes the silent defeat he exhibits in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska with the week-to-week shenanigans he brings to Fox’s Last Man on Earth. The entire third act rests heavily on his shoulders, and Forte never hunches. Though, the same could be said of Domhnall Gleeson, who plays his on-screen colleague, Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard. The unlikely chemistry between the two actors, who are cut from two very different kinds of cloth, is quite palpable and their scenes together are among the film’s best.
What’s also refreshing is how Wain –or, more specifically, casting director Allison Jones — was able to nail some of the biggest icons involved with the Lampoon. Joel McHale is eerily spot-on as Chevy Chase. (No, their connection through Community is not lost on this writer.) Rick Glassman is Harold Ramis reincarnated. Lonny Ross is a New Yorker cartoon of Ivan Reitman come to life. Jon Daly captures the doofus spirit of an early ’80s Bill Murray. And, Christ almighty, is Matt Lucas a carbon copy of Tony Hendra. Granted, they probably wouldn’t have worked in a straight-up drama, but for this? Totally.
Therein lies the issue again: What exactly is this movie supposed to be? Well, if you’re trying to learn about the history of the Lampoon and what the publication meant to pop culture, you’d be better off seeking out the aforementioned documentary. But, if you’re interested in a fairly simple movie about a very complicated genius, then A Futile and Stupid Gesture should do you good. Although the film lacks his absurdism, there’s a musicality to Wain’s direction that’s addicting, and the emotional punch in the final five minutes proves there’s a future for the filmmaker that goes way beyond the yucks.
In that respect, A Futile and Stupid Gesture is anything but that.