A thoughtful yet playful biography about an unsung comedy genius, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” derives its title from a line in “Animal House,” one of the signature properties attributable to the late National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney. For those who can still remember chanting “Toga!” or yelling “Food fight!,” it’s a nostalgic trip, albeit one with cautionary “A Star is Born”-esque overtones.
Kenney (Will Forte) is introduced as a Harvard student, cutting up at its satiric magazine with his buddy Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson). Essentially desperate not to grow up, the two seize on the idea of securing financing to launch their own humor magazine, which, after some trial and considerable error, blossoms into National Lampoon – an irreverent breeding ground for much of the comedy world of the 1970s and ‘80s, including many of “Saturday Night Live’s” original Not-Ready-for-Primetime Players.
Directed by David Wain (“Wet Hot American Summer”), and adapted from a book by Josh Karp, this “Stupid Gesture” cleverly plays around with the conventions of the form. For starters, although its protagonist died under somewhat mysterious circumstances in his 30s, the whole movie is narrated by an elder version of Kenney (Martin Mull), essentially positing what a cranky old coot he’d be had he lived.
Similarly, a crawl races by in the middle of the film listing some of the creative liberties taken, beginning with the fact that Forte is, clearly, too old to be playing Kenney when the movie begins, in his early 20s.
A self-described working-class, Midwestern dork, Kenney’s tale has a lot of familiar boy-makes-good-in-showbiz wrinkles to it. Toiling away like a fiend, and philandering when he isn’t high on something, he makes a mess of his marriage, along with most of the key relationships in his life that follow.
Kenney chafes at the success of “SNL,” which mined Lampoon discoveries like Chevy Chase (played by Joel McHale), John Belushi and Gilda Radner, prompting him to grumble “This should have been ours” as he watches the premiere.
After “Animal House” becomes a massive hit, Kenney relocated to Los Angeles, yielding the familiar litany of cocaine-dusted parties – with an abundance of powder flowing around the making of “Caddyshack” – and clashes with studio types.
As the movie makes clear, Kenney was a tortured soul, and the magazine he founded was a product of its time: overwhelmingly white, male and gleefully boorish.
The full title of Karp’s book, notably, is “A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever,” which might be a trifle hyperbolic. Then again, what would you expect from a movie about a guy who published a cover saying that if you didn’t buy the magazine, they’d shoot this dog?
“A Stupid and Futile Gesture” premieres Jan. 26 on Netflix.