Netflix’s new original film A Futile and Stupid Gesture joins the recent mini-trend of ultimately redundant feature film dramatizations of events already chronicled in superior documentaries. For example, who needs The Walk when the world already has Man on Wire? Director Laura Poitras covered the real Edward Snowden in the Academy Award-winning Citizenfour far better than Oliver Stone ever could in Snowden. Now, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (which, admittedly, has its own flaws, such as almost completely skipping the company’s downfall) trumps A Futile and Stupid Gesture. Luckily, Drunk… is also on Netflix. Really, just skip Futile and watch it instead.
But, if you do that you will miss the peculiar sight of Joel McHale’s sometimes terrible, sometimes spot-on impression of 70s-era Chevy Chase, smug smirk, prolonged pratfalls and all. So, there’s that.
Let’s back up.
For people of a certain age, National Lampoon conjures memories of the wildest and funniest damn satirical magazine-turned-comedy-album-turned-radio-hour-turned-stage-show. For those a little younger, it’s simply the somewhat cumbersome pre-fix attached to some classic comedies (Animal House, Vacation) and some not-so-classic comedies (Senior Trip, Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure).
There’s yet a third group for whom National Lampoon means absolutely nothing since the magazine went out of business in 1998 and the films baring the Lampoon label stopped mattering in any kind of meaningful way several years if not a full decade prior to that. People in this latter group probably don’t even realize Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, two pop cultural institutions which still exist today, were partially built by Lampoon alumni.
Eventually, Lampoon’s brief reign as the king of American comedy was profiled in Josh Karp’s 2006 book A Futile and Stupid Gesture (which is a line from Animal House). Then, in 2010 former Lampoon artist/writer Rick Meyerowitz released a coffee table book compilation of some of the Lampoon’s best work. Five years later, Douglas Triola re-used the title of Meyerowitz’s book (Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead) for his documentary featuring archival footage, audio, and pictures and new interviews with the Lampoon’s major players, most notably publisher Matty Simmons and co-founder Henry Beard.
As seen in Drunk Stoned…, here are several pre-SNL stars recording the National Lampoon Radio Hour:
Now, David Wain, a Netflix regular after partnering with them on multiple Wet Hot American Summer follow-ups, has gathered together a bunch of familiar faces of modern comedy (Thomas Lennon, Matt Lucas, Jon Daly, Nelson Franklin, Max Greenfield, Joe Lo Truglio, Natasha Lyonne, McHale, all doing rather big impressions of some of their comic heroes) and Domhnall Gleeson (unrecognizable as Beard) to star in an experimental biopic about Lampoon’s other co-founder Doug Kenney.
I say “experimental” because, taking its cue from the Lampoon’s signature upending of convention, Futile features fantasy sequences, a fourth-wall breaking/unreliable narrator (Martin Mull), frequent on-screen text identifying the new characters, a meta-reference to the inherent absurdity of Will Forte playing a 27-year-old, an open apology for the lack of black and female characters (since the Lampoon’s staff was almost entirely white and male), a mid-movie text scroll listing all of the intentional simplifications and historical inaccuracies in the story to-that-point and even spoilers for the rest of the film, and several other narrative tricks I’d rather not spoil. However, for all of its experimentation Futile has long stretches of rather traditional biopic storytelling. You come away feeling like Wain and screenwriters Michael Colton and John Aboud (both Harvard grads, btw) were torn between honoring Doug Kenney’s anarchic spirit and revering his life story.
We meet Kenney and Beard in their final days at Harvard, each writing for the college’s centuries-old satirical magazine The Harvard Lampoon and hosting Animal House-style parties. Terrified of the challenge to give up comedy for good and become a proper adult working in a Harvard-anointed job, Kenney (the gregarious one in the duo) talks Beard (the quiet, cerebral one) into taking what we would now call a gap year to try and turn the Lampoon into a national magazine. It’s a leap of faith on Beard’s part, who comes from money and has seemingly unlimited opportunities before him, but an act of defiance/desperation on Kenney’s part, an Ohio transplant with cash-strapped parents threatening to cut him off.
All he wants to do with his life and write jokes. In fact, all he does in his life is tell jokes. Much later in the story, a love interest played by Emmy Rossum asks him if he only speaks in punchlines, and she’s not wrong. Appropriately, the phrase “Is this a bit?” recurs throughout the movie as Wain and his cast perfectly capture the feel of hanging around with comedians who never stop riffing or pitching new material. The first writer’s meeting Kenney and Beard host for the magazine especially nails the barely controlled chaos of gathering funny people in a room, removing any filters, and watching as they try to one-up each other, sometimes insufferably.
On the flipside, Futile takes a stab at depicting the depression underneath the jokes, consistently framing Kenney’s efforts as coming back to a need to impress his parents, particularly his disapproving father. This is the same type of darker headspace Forte often likes to dive into on Last Man On Earth, which makes him a natural to do it here as well.
Futile’s heart isn’t completely in this part of the story, though. It’s more alive during the “inmates are running the asylum” section of the story where Lampoon rises to national prominence through the sheer force of not giving a fuck about anything other than finding the best, often most offensive, yet usually ingenious joke in the moment. Cue the inevitable montages of characters recreating some of the Lampoon’s most famous covers and images.
This gives Futile an enjoyable flimsy feel, the kind of movie where all of the wigs looking terrible is supposed to be part of the charm and any darkness to the story goes acknowledged but underexplored since who really wants to go there. It’s a byproduct of Wain, as IndieWire put it, struggling to rectify his personal “knack for parody” with the story’s “need for pathos.” That doesn’t make it a bad film, just a flawed one. But like far too many other Netflix Original Movies it ultimately feels inessential.
THE BOTTOM LINE
How do you make a movie about one of the most extraordinary comedic minds of the 20th century when his life ultimately plays out just like any other ordinary tale of 70s/80s excess? Futile constantly grapples with this question, and when it’s at its best it plays like an alt-comedy version of a Goodfellas/Boogie Nights narrative; at its worst, just another tortured genius biopic about success, burnout, cocaine, women, more cocaine, and…did I mention cocaine? Maybe watch Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead first and if you love it and have another two hours to kill check out Futile.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- There were three founders of the National Lampoon, not two, but Robert Hoffman’s contributions as the third party to Beard and Kenney is usually forgotten. Drunk Stoned Brilliant at least references him; Futile and Stupid ignores him entirely.
- Literally, in the time since I started writing this, Tom Hanks has been announced as playing Mr. Rogers in a biopic about the longtime kids show host. Of course, a critically beloved Mr. Rogers documentary just premiered at Sundance. Coincidence or not, it fits the pattern where more and more documentaries are being treated as proof-of-concept pitches for future movie ideas.
- Here’s part of the incredibly awkward Caddyshack press conference which is dramatized in Futile and Stupid:
What did you think of A Futile and Stupid Gesture? Let me know in the comments.