Film Review | A Futile and Stupid Gesture

A game cast transforms this uneven comedy-biopic into an impish and often raucous affair, making it among the better of the Netflix Original bunch • 3/5 

Dumb and smarter: Will Forte and Domnhall Gleeson as the men who founded the National Lampoon empire
Dumb and smarter: Will Forte and Domnhall Gleeson as the men who founded the National Lampoon empire

Comedian biopics are often surprisingly complex affairs. This is partly because making people laugh as a professional vocation is a prospect rife with contradiction from the start. Where does the fun start, and the work begin? And isn’t there something achingly self-conscious – if not downright pathological – in a person who is motivated by a desire to make strangers laugh with them?

This gives one a lot to chew on, from Martin Scorsese’s initially-misunderstood King of Comedy down to the more recent explorations of the rift between comedian, performer and admirer in Jim and Andy – that Netflix feature in which Jim Carrey grapples with the enduring and enigmatic influence of late, great fellow comedy virtuoso Andy Kaufmann.

And now, somewhere in between comedy biopic and historical expose of a small counterculture movement comes yet another sleeper salvo from the Netflix streaming network, this time detailing the rise and fall of the ‘National Lampoon’ empire.

Harvard graduates Doug Kenney (Will Forte) and Harry Burns (Domnhall Gleeson) are something like campus celebrities by the time they graduate. One being an avuncular lout with accidental lapses of charm, the other a pipe-smoking pseudo sophisticate with a laconic demeanour and wit to match, they are founders of the ‘Harvard Lampoon’ – a satirical campus publication more renowned for their raucous parties than for the print magazine itself. Capping off their final year with the publication of the now-cult classic ‘Bored of the Rings’ (no prizes for guessing which literary genre favourite that bawdy book was sending up), Doug becomes high on their successful run – as well as other substances – and tries to convince Harry to join him in his mission to expand the Harvard Lampoon into its national counterpart.

Reluctant at first, Harry soon comes around to the idea and, while a number of mainstream publishers show them the door, Matty Simmons (Matt Walsh) of ‘Weight Watchers’ fame finally gives them a chance to introduce their often vulgar and somewhat childish brand of comedy into the American publishing atmosphere.

What follows is a fairly typical “American Dream” story, narrated as such with self-aware gusto by Martin Mull playing an imagined “modern” version of Doug, punctuating the Lampoon group’s historical trajectory – which, lest we forget, very much rode the wave of “liberation” and excess of the ‘60s and ‘70s – with charmingly grouchy and self-deprecating flavour. This in itself is something of an inspired contrivance, however: the narration is a pure imposition in David Wain’s film – scripted by John Aboud and Michael Colton and adapted from Josh Karp’s book of the same name – since Doug tragically fell to his death at the age of 33, reeling from a drug and alcohol addiction that feels depressingly stereotypical. Abandoned by his more sober – mentally if not physiologically – counterpart (that’s Henry), reeling from both a drug and alcohol addiction that’s also pushed this divorcee’s latest relationship to the brink, Doug also sees the latest fruit of his labour – once again, what is now a cult classic, Caddyshack (1980) – become overshadowed by the more immediately popular Airplane!

Speaking about the incident that ended up taking Doug’s life, director Ivan Reitman – who helmed Caddyshack and then went on to direct the likes of Ghostbusters, taking along with him fellow Lampoon alumnus Harold Ramis (here played by Rick Glassman) – speculated that Doug probably “fell while looking for a place to jump”. A crude and tasteless – futile and stupid? – joke on the one hand, but judging by Wain’s film, also a perfectly fitting tribute to the impish legacy of both the entire Lampoon project – which would even help give a head-start to the likes of Billy Murray (Jon Daly) and Chevy Chase (Joel McHale) – and Doug Kenney himself.

With tongue firmly in cheek and a naughty but well-meaning urge to both amuse and offend, this adaptation is an equally unpolished treat that pulls off the punch-line more often than it misses it.

The verdict

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is just the kind of low-fi but well-scripted slice of mid-level fare that makes for a perfect fit with the Netflix platform and business model. With a game lead in Will Forte and a suitably witty foil in Domnhall Gleeson’s altogether more “sober” – relatively speaking – Harry Burns, this biopic also allows itself to incorporate a whole subculture of what would become the vanguard of American comedy, though it catches up with it – excitingly enough – just as the bubble of success is about to burst. A fun romp of a time, balancing caustic wit with dumb farce in a somewhat uneven but overwhelmingly satisfying way.

 

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is currently streaming on Netflix

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