‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’: Zany story of the National Lampoon

Domhnall Gleeson stars in David Wain’s wacky film which is all about the zingers

Will Forte and Domhnall Gleeson in ‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’. Photograph: John P Fleenor/Netflix

Film Title: A Stupid and Futile Gesture

Director: David Wain

Starring: Will Forte, Domhnall Gleeson, Martin Mull, Joel McHale, Thomas Lennon, John Gemberling, Matt Walsh, Rick Glassman, Jon Daly, Seth Green

Genre: Biography

Running Time: 101 min

Fri, Jan 26, 2018, 05:00

   

“Do you only talk in one-liners?” asks latest extramarital interest for Doug Kenney (Will Forte), the co-founder of the National Lampoon. “I also know some dirty limericks,” comes the characteristically wisecracking retort. He’s not exaggerating.

Working from Josh Karp’s 2006 history, A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever, David Wain’s relentlessly wacky film chronicles how a student rag mag became National Lampoon, the international multiplatform phenomenon behind Animal House and the Vacation films.

The Wet Hot American Summer director works hard to incorporate the zany tone of its subject into the movie. Extremely hard.

Playing the older, wiser Kenney, the terrific Martin Mull adds a pop-up Greek chorus, self-reflexive commentary, and, occasionally hints at the sadness in his childhood. But never for too long.

Passersby on the street, dismayed by the homogeneity of the Lampoon’s staff, wonder that “there were no funny black writers in the 70s and just one funny woman”. Kenney pleads “different times”. Conversely, his Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) gives the game away when he’s asked about bringing folks from outside Harvard on to the staff: “You mean Yale?”

There are jokes about the age of star Forte, who alongside Gleeson, plays his character from college to mid-30s. There are jokes about Winston Churchill. There are jokes about Richard Nixon. Kenney and Beard vow to be happy and loyal as long as they are writing jokes together. Beard is plainly a patient fellow, but even he can’t keep up with Kenney’s womanising, workaholism, and drug dependency. In the end, Kenney barely has the time to be a terrible husband, as he puts it.

As the Lampoon empire expands to radio, stage and finally movies, the National Lampoon’s performers come to include John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner, all of whom are subsequently poached by Saturday Night Live, much to Kenney’s chagrin. He’s enraged, too, by a screening of Airplane! in the same summer as his own 1980 comedy, Caddyshack.

Gleeson and Mull gift some heart to a battleground of rapid-fire one-liners. But in the end, the film is all about the zingers. That may be just as well. National Lampoon’s “over the line” humour has not aged as well as its delirious silliness (food fight, anyone?).

Never mind the sexism or “different times”: the magazine’s attempts to shock with “erotic pictures of women corpses” now just seem like another quaint corner of the internet.

For those unfamiliar with the details, there’s a neat narrative curve ball in the final act. Stupid: For sure. But futile? Hardly.