A Futile and Stupid Gesture, now streaming on Netflix, ostensibly tells the story of Doug Kenney (Will Forte), the guy who along with his friend and former Harvard classmate Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) co-founded The National Lampoon and essentially created the comedy world we live in to this day. If not “created” then he certainly dropped a rock in a pond whose ripples are still apparent and felt.
As I said when I wrote about the campaign Netflix launched to promote it, the subject matter makes it something I was absolutely inclined to enjoy. I never read more than a handful of issues of Lampoon but certainly knew of its existence and reveled in the world Kenney created directly (Animal House, Caddyshack), indirectly (“Saturday Night Live,” which poached many of the writers and actors from Lampoon and its radio show) and as an influence (literally 90% of comedy since 1980). That being said, I didn’t know much about Kenney as a person or what motivated him.
The movie’s screenwriters John Aboud and Michael Colton, as well as director David Wain, probably could have taken a standard approach to what is basically yet another biopic. It does check some of the same boxes others do. Biopics, as many have discussed in the past, are notoriously hard to pull off because it’s hard to balance including an entire life’s worth of events and interactions into a story while focusing on only a handful so as not to get overwhelmed. We see key moments in Kenney’s life, from his meeting Beard to launching the magazine to making Caddyshack, as well as the problems his infidelity caused for the women in his life.
Where the movie sets itself apart from most biopics is in the scene whose dialogue I shared at the top. In that moment Kenney has died but is basically haunting his own funeral, wondering why a group of such funny people aren’t having a better time. He confronts an older version of himself (played by the sublime Martin Mull, who’s a goddamn treasure) he will never be but who has been narrating much of the story for the audience. That interaction encapsulates everything I loved about the structure of the movie. Let me try to break that down a bit.
Dead Doug Kenney: “You can see me? (One fictional character encounters and acknowledges the existence of the other outside the real world they are both viewing but can’t engage with.)
Old Doug Kenney: “Mmhmm.” (The other fictional character confirms this is really happening but isn’t shocked by it, as if this is what he expected.)
Dead Doug Kenney: “So you’re a…” (Someone who has made a life of telling stories here begins to take just that perspective, realizing this is all a story that requires structure of some sort. When your entire life has been devoted to deconstructing society, you can’t help but see the construction of everything around you because you’re looking for weak spots.)
Old Doug Kenney: “Narrative construct.” (Mull’s narrator has been saying this to the audience throughout the movie but now he’s saying it to himself, explaining to the younger Kenney that he represents his unrealized future *and* confirming that his storytelling instincts were correct.
Dead Doug Kenney: “It’s a choice.”
It’s that last line that floored me, laying out a big reason why I had enjoyed this film so much and offering a potential reason as to why so many biopics feel tired and predictable, ultimately failing to catch on with audiences.
Storytelling is, of course, about making choices. Writers, directors, actors…they all make choices. The first two groups in particular are tasked with creating the framework for the story, deciding *how* to tell it and in what way. For biopics, that often takes the shape of “Here’s the subject as a young person followed by a few key events that show important beats and explain why we’re following this person and then it all culminates in some sense of finality.” Events are combined or contracted – something that happened over the course of five months is shown to unfold over a week because it’s more dramatic – and characters dropped, some of their attributes or actions assigned to others.
This formula usually results in something that doesn’t always feel wholly satisfying. The writer and other creators spend a few weeks on the press circuit explaining why they made the choices they did, acknowledging that X key event was left out because it didn’t really fit in the structure of the narrative.
What Futile and Stupid… does is lay all that out for the audience. Mull’s Narrator Kenney has acknowledged the filmmaking choices at various times earlier in the movie. In a clip released before the movie came out, he makes it clear everyone knows the actors portraying real-life actors Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Christopher Guest and others don’t look like the people they’re supposed to be. At another point while talking about staffing up the magazine he interacts with a couple who ask why there were no black people on the Lampoon staff. Shortly after that he shows the number of people who worked at the Lampoon but says something to the effect of “…but because we only have so much time we’re just going to focus on five of them.”
By tipping the hat to the choices that have been made the filmmakers explain to an informed and intelligent audience why they’re doing what they’re doing. The subject matter of Futile and Stupid… allows for this sort of meta-commentary more easily than something like Selma, and that freedom is used to full effect.
It reminds me, then, of two of my other favorite biopics: Jobs and Chaplin.
In Jobs, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin threw out the standard formula and presented three key moments from the life of Steve Jobs, eschewing much of reality while trying to convey certain points. That three-act structure may not have portrayed anything that actually happened, but it allowed him to create a sense of drama around events we were already largely familiar with and convey who he believed Jobs to *be* more than what he *did.*
In Chaplin, the movie is framed as being told as an interview between Chaplin and the editor of his autobiography. That conversation never happened, but it’s a narrative device that allows the filmmakers to follow the conventional path in a way that pokes the occasional hole in that choice along the way.
You can quibble with either one, but you can’t deny that they both represent a clear choice on the part of the filmmakers. Similarly, you can take issue with how Wain and the screenwriters of Futile and Stupid… tell the story of Kenney and his career, but you can’t say they didn’t make a clear choice and commit to it.
In one of the more negative reviews of the movie, the critic complained that he couldn’t believe the formative years of Lampoon, as well as the creation of classic comedies like Animal House and Caddyshack, was this much of a downer. He compared it to the documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, also on Netflix, that covers the same general material. Overlooking the fact that the latter isn’t a documentary about Kenney but the magazine as a whole, what he misses is that Futile and Stupid… is more about the rampant insecurity and self-esteem issues that drove Kenney than a straightforward creation story.
Throughout the movie, Kenney is driven by the desire to make his father proud of him. Like many very funny people, he just wants to be loved. He’s found that making people laugh is a decent substitute for that. Add a little (OK, a lot) of cocaine and he was able to make it through most days, right up to the point where he can’t. Women who love him aren’t enough, so he constantly cheats on them, seeking solace in the arms and beds of strangers because there’s such a gaping maw inside of him it refuses to be satisfied under any circumstances.
A scene halfway through the film is illustrative of how the filmmakers have chosen to make a movie about depression, not comedy. Kenney has become convinced the Lampoon brand needs to expand into radio. When he pitches the idea, Beard retorts that they’re barely able to maintain the magazine’s schedule much less add anything to it. “So we’ll barely be able to do something else,” Kenney replies. Meanwhile his wife, who’s been neglected and ignored while the scramble to publish a monthly magazine, wonders why he’s choosing some other venture over her.
When you’re spending every day trying to keep the deepest, darkest voices in your head at bay you look for any new venture that will help you out. In this case, the 22 hour days Kenney was putting in trying to produce enough pages to fill Lampoon worked for a while but then he needed something new. If any spare moment is allowed, the darkness comes rushing back in and will threaten to pull him down once and for all.
The movie never states that explicitly, but it’s hovering in the background throughout. That takes us back to that final scene. Forte’s Kenney, now dead, yells at the assembled mourners to “Laugh, dammit.” It’s the only way he’s able to relate to people, as the funniest one in the room, the one who brings together talented people to crowd out the demons. It would be dismissive to say he was using humor as a defense mechanism. It’s simple survival for those who feel perpetually tortured but who can’t, for whatever reason, reach out for more substantive help.
There are funny moments in A Futile and Stupid Gesture. There’s can’t not be. Even more than that, the movie provides an insight into the creative, troubled mind that others don’t and it does so in a way that’s wholly original by not just breaking the fourth wall but taking the entire set down to the studs so the audience can inspect the workmanship. It’s highly recommended.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.