Arts, Features

REVIEW: ‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’ takes risks with casting, lands only some of them

If you don’t read this review, we’ll kill a dog.

Perhaps this was not quite as effective as it was when the National Lampoon magazine ran a similar headline, complete with a picture of a pooch at gunpoint.

Shock, vulgarity, tastelessness, parody, risk, insanity, surrealism — in the 1970s, it’s what comedian Douglas Kenney and his team used to turn a humor magazine into a comedy empire. “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” released Jan. 26 on Netflix, tells the story of how they did it.

It’s a story that starts, perhaps surprisingly, at Harvard University. Instead of going to law school like most of their classmates, Doug Kenney and his friend Henry Beard doubled down on their small campus satire magazine, The Harvard Lampoon, taking it nationwide. Eventually, the new National Lampoon turned into a brand, spawning radio shows, live events, books and classic films like “Animal House,” from which the film’s title is taken, and “Caddyshack.”

Comedian Will Forte plays Doug Kenney, a manic, drug-addicted writer and creator of the Lampoon. Forte’s performance is passable. The charm and wit are there when they need to be, and the aloofness and instability are too. If one has any familiarity with Forte, it’s kind of obvious that it’s him, but the performance is there and it’s good.

The film’s plot is told through an odd frame story, with an older version of Kenney narrating the events and occasionally appearing in the scenes themselves to make comments. It’s an odd choice, something the film actually directly references, but the device is unneeded.

Kenney died long before he reached the “modern” age of the man narrating, and the rise and fall of Kenney’s life is undoubtedly already an interesting story. While it does allow for a few funny, self-referential jokes, it’s ultimately just a distraction.

That’s the biggest problem with “Stupid Gesture.” It tries to do too much. Sometimes it feels like the writers break the fourth wall simply for the sake of breaking the fourth wall. Some of the tricky editing and camera movement, while mechanically interesting, contributes next to nothing to the story, and it too does little but distract.

But when it does hit home, it hits hard and it hits well. One example where the film really gets it right is when it portrays certain aspects of Doug’s life using the various formats he used in his career. His breakup with his girlfriend is shown only in silent comic strips, and his self-defeating thoughts sometimes manifest themselves as an invisible radio drama.

These variations are unique and interesting, and although they’re often a complete narrative break, they don’t have that distracting quality of some of the film’s other structural choices.

The comedy in the film is consistently good, too. Not every joke hits, of course, and certain bits become repetitive or overly long, but there are plenty of laughs to go around.

The writers’ rooms feel real, with the riffing and teasing that feel like what you’d actually hear in those settings. A good portion of the dialogue feels improvised, and, whether it was or not, it’s a testament to both the writers’ skill and the actors’ proficiency.

The cast is adequate and there’s no one performance that’s worse than the others. It’s almost entirely comedians, and if anything, some of their comedic potential is wasted, many appearing in only one or two scenes with few jokes.

Some of the actors who play younger versions of other famous comedians look a little odd in the roles, either because the character is so distinctive, or the actor is famous enough to recognize. This is also something the movie directly addresses with its fourth wall breaks, but the self-awareness doesn’t really make up for its inability to sell me on Joel McHale as Chevy Chase.

The one actor unrecognizable in this film is Domhnall Gleeson, who gives the best performance in the movie as Kenney’s partner Henry Beard. Beard is an odd, pipe-smoking Harvard grad who is often the straight man to Kenney’s insanity. Gleeson plays him well, virtually disappearing into the strange-looking, articulate character.

“A Futile and Stupid Gesture” feels like a movie made for Netflix, and in this case, that’s not really a good thing. As with a lot of the service’s more recent features, not everything clicks. A few things do, and the overall experience is enjoyable, but one can’t help but feel as if the quality is just a little bit less than what it could have been.

“Stupid Gesture” is an honest film, though. It’s not just a biopic banking on a big name and it’s not a blockbuster summer comedy. At its core, it’s a comedy movie made for comedy fans. It’s a little bit risky, a little bit off and far from perfect, much like The Lampoon itself. But Douglas Kenney would have liked it, and that might just be the most important thing.

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