If any genre of film will endure until the end of time, it’s the biopic. Famous, unique and important individuals will always fascinate us normal folks. Unfortunately, too many biopics feel familiar; it can feel like we’ve seen the same song and dance before, no matter who’s the star of the show. Thus, experimenting with the genre can yield fun and exciting results. David Wain’s “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” attempts (and mostly succeeds) at doing just that.
Released on Netflix at the end of January, after debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” follows Doug Kenney (Will Forte), one of two co-founders of the National Lampoon comedy magazine. Kenney lived a wild life, filled with sex, drugs and one-liners, and he dealt with drug addiction and mental health issues while trying to leave his mark on the comedy world. The film not only traces Kenney’s successes and struggles, but functions as a sort of tribute to the comedian, framing it with a supposed older version of him (Martin Mull), offering up insights and commentary throughout.
This elderly narrator isn’t the only part of this film that toys with the typical biopic formula. The whole film is very tongue-in-cheek and occasionally self aware. In one sequence, the film showcases a group of actors who join National Lampoon to start a comedic radio show, including Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Gilda Radner; most of these actors went on to join the first cast of “Saturday Night Live.” Naturally, the actors cast to play them don’t look exactly like their real life counterparts — a fact that the older Kenney comments on (“Yeah, so, these actors don’t look exactly like the real people, but come on, you think I looked like Will Forte when I was 27? You think Will Forte is 27?”)
Immediately after this, the film features a scrolling list of facts that were changed, stories that were left out or moments that were emphasized for dramatic effect. This fast and loose approach to storytelling mirrors the real “Lampoon’s” messy atmosphere and reminds us that this film isn’t taking itself too seriously — it’s asking us to have fun and revel in the mess.
While we know the actors don’t necessarily look much like their counterparts (though Forte is spot on for Kenney, even considering the age difference), the cast is what will most likely bring you to this film, save for the few National Lampoon fanatics out there. Forte, as the anchor of the film, does a fine job holding it all together and portraying Kenney’s highs and lows. Alongside Forte are a vast array of recognizable faces, including Domnhall Gleeson, Joel McHale, Emmy Rossum, Natasha Lyonne, Thomas Lennon and plenty more, especially when you consider cameos. You’ll have plenty of, “Don’t I know that guy?” moments as you watch. And, though I doubt there will be any award-winning performances, it’s clear the cast is having a fun time bringing these larger than life people back to life on screen.
Unfortunately, there’s not much else about “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” that wows or excites. It’s an interesting story with a fun cast and some humorous choices that play with biopic conventions, but there’s nothing to really write home about. The film doesn’t step far enough away from the standard biopic to be classified as a satire, which is disappointing when the whole film is about the founders of a comedy magazine that dedicated itself to satire. The jokes themselves often only got a chuckle or just one of those exhale-through-your-nose kinds of laughs from me. I only laughed out loud maybe once or twice which was, again, disappointing for a film about a comedy magazine.