If you want a straightforward history about National Lampoon, its founders Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, and its impact on American comedy, you can check out the 2015 documentary DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: The History of National Lampoon (it’s currently on Netflix). If you want a movie that’s in tune with the spirit of National Lampoon, then you should go with David Wain’s A Futile and Stupid Gesture. Rather than attempt a straight biopic focusing Kenney, Wain understands that the best way to honor Kenney’s life is with a movie that’s as hilarious and irreverent as National Lampoon. A Futile and Stupid Gesture may not be as lasting or influential as Kenney’s work, but it’s a fitting tribute.
In terms of structure, A Futile and Stupid gesture is a fairly straightforward look at the relationship between Kenney (Will Forte) and Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) with an older Kenney (Martin Mull) serving as a narrative device to guide us through the various developments of Kenney’s success, his personal demons, his insecurities, and his influence that eventually led to the success of not only National Lampoon magazine, but also Animal House, Caddyshack, and performers who would go on to lead Saturday Night Live. But within the standard plot are tons of nods to the absurdity of the biopic form from the 47-year-old Forte playing an 18-year-old Kenney and the older Kenney pointing out National Lampoon’s shortcomings. However, the movie never loses sight of the importance of the relationship between Kenney and Beard and the lasting impact they had on comedy.
The biopic is an inherently absurd genre that we just choose to accept. We know life is messy, asymmetrical, anticlimactic, and almost never fits the three-act structure we implicitly demand from American movies, so rather than play by those absurd rules, Wain chooses to just blow them up, acknowledging the ridiculousness of the format and just having fun with it instead. He’s still telling Kenney’s story, but for Wain, the most important thing is to be funny rather than attempt to reach the 100% accuracy that no biopic ever achieves anyway.
Since Wain acknowledges that the biopic is a ridiculous genre, it allows him to have fun and poke fun at the movie’s inability to completely capture the messiness of Kenney’s life while still treating Kenney like a real person. No one plays sad desperation quite like Will Forte, and his inherent likability helps thread the needle between Kenney’s comic genius and his self-destructive tendencies. Wain isn’t trying to whitewash Kenney as much as acknowledging that he was a funny guy with some demons, and Forte’s performance earns our sympathy.
He also earns our laughs. A Futile and Stupid Gesture is, most importantly, funny. Watching Kenney and Beard banter is fantastic (I hope we see another movie with Forte and Gleeson as co-leads because they have excellent chemistry), and Wain has stacked his cast with reliable comedians who may not look like their real-life counterparts, but that doesn’t really matter. This isn’t a movie about John Belushi or Chevy Chase, and since Wain prizes laughs over accuracy, it works. Wain is also sharp enough to acknowledge National Lampoon’s shortcomings like that the writing staff was largely white and male.
If the original National Lampoon ever made a movie about its own history, it would probably be raunchier, more incendiary, offensive, and electric, but Wain is at least on the right track with A Futile and Stupid Gesture. The movie is meant to be a tribute more than a history lesson, and the best kind of tribute Wain can pay is to try and get in on the joke rather than solemnly nod and make a restrained picture. For A Futile and Stupid Gesture, imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery.