A Futile and Stupid Gesture, now streaming on Netflix, is perfectly grooved for someone of my generation, who laughed like Beavis and Butt-Head at National Lampoon, who can quote whole passages of Animal House or Caddyshack, and steadfastly maintain that the original cast of Saturday Night Live is the best (it is). It is the story of Doug Kenney, who is toasted as being the founder of modern comedy. I don’t know if that’s true, because the film tells me that but doesn’t show it.
Directed by David Wain, the film is meta, with constant breaking of fourth walls and much self-reference. The narrator is Kenney today, played by Martin Mull. If you’re knowledgeable about this, it may bother you, because Kenney died in 1980, falling off a mountain in Hawaii when he was 33. Mull, later in the film, describes himself as a “narrative device.”
Aside from a scene of Kenney attending his brother’s funeral (the dead brother was the good one) starts with him at Harvard, where he and his best friend Henry Beard (Domnhall Gleason) working at the Harvard Lampoon. After graduation, reluctant to actually have to work, he suggests that he and Henry continue the Lampoon. They go around pitching to publishers, and finally connect with Matty Simmons, who is the publisher of Weight Watcher’s.
Eventually they are a huge success, spawning a radio show, and a live show, giving jobs to comedy legends like Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray (these actors are played by people who don’t look like them, which the film gleefully admits). The writing staff includes Michael O’Donoghue, Tony Hendra, and Ann Beatts, who also went on to success in television (Hendra played the manager of Spinal Tap in that film). A black couple intrudes to wonder why they have no blacks on the staff, and Mull tells them, “If it’s any consolation, there were very few Jews.”
Kenney is played by Will Forte, who is depicted as a mellow guy who constantly speaks in one liners. Would a comic historian gather anything about him that indicates he was a comic genius? Hard to say. Mostly he sits at a typewriter and is shown as the creator of the food fight. We also see that he can’t sustain a relationship, with either women or his friends, and is one to bolt when the going gets tough.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture (the title is a line from Animal House, but you knew that) is more interesting than entertaining. I did learn a few things, such as that Chevy Chase actually cared about Kenney, which belies his current image as a first-class jerk (he’s played, in a bit of irony, by Joel McHale, his one-time Community co-star). A lot of recognizable characters fly by, like P.J. O’Rourke, Lorne Michaels, Ed Helms as Tom Snyder, Chris Miller, Harold Ramis (who, addressing whether Kenney committed suicide or not, says, “He fell when he was looking for a place to jump”) and Ivan Reitman.
This only goes so far, as the script crams so many characters in but doesn’t really give us any insight, and the result is too airy. But I recommend it for nostalgic Baby Boomers.