Scrambling to stem skimpy sales of their newly launched National Lampoon magazine, co-creators Doug Kenney and Henry Beard have a revelation: The artwork’s Crumb-inspired grotesqueries and creatures wantonly stomp all over the witty words contained inside. Their solution? Can those art directors and choose new ones who will complement their punchlines rather than throw competitive elbows at them.
This collaborative compromise cemented National Lampoon’s eminently bankable identity of stark, confrontational comedy in which all manner of culture and class became fair game — exemplified by an infamous cover threatening to murder a dog if sales slack. The poster for A Futile and Stupid Gesture, a biopic about Kenney now streaming on Netflix, appropriates that image but never quite strikes its same sense of visual and verbal harmony.
Adapting Josh Karp’s biography, screenwriters Michael Colton and John Aboud seem uncertain how to distinguish the tale of Doug Kenney (Will Forte), a milquetoast Midwesterner and unlikely American comedy tastemaker in print, on the radio and, with National Lampoon’s Animal House and Caddyshack, the big screen. (Domhnall Gleeson plays his best buddy, Beard, admirably and amiably against type.)
Will it be Martin Mull’s on- and off-screen narration as an aged Kenney? An acknowledgment that this is a biopic starring Will Forte? A blustery barrage of one-liners? A cadre of recognizable comics indulging in hero-worship cosplay, since Colton and Aboud’s own Modern Humorist owes them a debt? (Yes, that’s Seth Green as Christopher Guest for all of five seconds.) All of the above, and all while covering too much ground, stepping on jokes and eventually falling prey to biopic formula.
While it’s an easy out for familiar faces as famous people, the chronology of National Lampoon is covered far better in the 2015 documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead. A segment in which Kenney laments the loss of so much Lampoon talent to Saturday Night Live seems there solely to squeeze in another bad Lorne Michaels impersonation.
Simultaneously, Gesture is director David Wain’s (Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models) most accomplished work yet from a standpoint of composition and character work. Kenney’s first marriage dissolves across a series of panels, a perfect expression of Kenney’s experience of life as a bit waiting for a payoff. Wain also incorporates a lovely, unexpected and sad shift from one artifice to another in a scene — an emphasis on Kenney’s often drug-dependent lapse from reality — and a thoughtful consideration of Kenney’s skewed vision of the world with a circular moment involving eyewear.
Himself a widely trusted comic impresario, Wain also subtly accumulates substance as the film plays Spot the Comedian. Gesture establishes the moment when this cusp of comedy cruised into commercial territory and became a cutthroat competition for chops, creativity, cojones and, most of all, cash.
And when given room to downshift from Forte’s typical fortissimo of funny stuff, Wain gets his leading man close to the nuance of Nebraska. Largely through body language and blocking, Forte establishes comedy may have been nothing more for Kenney than a forced way for an introvert to face the world, as well as how difficult it was for him to rediscover the right frequency after his many removals from the noise. In a sneaky way, Wain and Forte elevate the film’s final scenes into unexpectedly moving territory.
However fitting that a film about a man at existential odds with himself is itself at odds with its essential components, A Futile and Stupid Gesture could still have benefited from a bit more punch-up.