A Futile and Stupid Gesture (2018)
TV-MA...and boy-oh-boy is it MA. It's a movie about the creation of National Lampoon, a magazine infamous for raunchy content. As part of that, the movie tries to mirror the vibe of the magazine, presenting nudity, language, and drug use in spades. It is also about the creation of Animal House and Caddyshack. Have you seen those movies? Yeah, A Futile and Stupid Gesture is Animal House / Caddyshack TV-MA.
DIRECTOR: David Wain
I just went on a long rant about how biopics are problematic and there aren't any that really have the value that they need. I'm a real turd sometimes, you know that? I also really ripped into Wonder, a movie about a kid with a facial deformity that I thought was dumb. I now just feel absolutely terrible because I'm about to preach about A Futile and Stupid Gesture, a movie about some real terrible people who make me laugh a lot. What is wrong with me? At times, I go on and on about the value of sentimentality and vulnerability. Then there are these times, where crassness reigns supreme. I don't know. Don't listen to anything I say. But do, because I would be disheartened if people stopped reading these things again.
It would help to go into a little context about why I don't think biopics work as well as they should. When I started preaching about Darkest Hour being a very well made movie, but ultimately suspense free, it was because we know the story of Churchill. Darkest Hour dramatized those events, gave some possibly unknown details about Churchill while imagining others. But at the end of the day, we know that Churchill is going to be a key figure in defeating Adolf Hitler. The dramatic premises are always kind of flawed because we know almost exactly how the movie is going to end. There is no suspense. But then I watched A Futile and Stupid Gesture. Oh man, I both really want to go into spoilers, but I also know that some people might consider watching this based on this review. I'm very full of myself and I am convinced that these words have meaning. (Actual spoiler: They don't.) Wain adapted a story that works by itself, but made it better. The thing that is that Doug Kenney, the focus of this biopic, is not commonly known. We know that National Lampoon existed and we can recognize the name, but the name has been associated with the Vacation movies and this movie doesn't touch on any of that. Rather, this focuses on the birth of the magazine and that information isn't exactly commonplace. The story is interesting and I don't know if I've been living under a rock when it comes to the beat-by-beats of the whole story. But this is where a good director can adapt a work of nonfiction and bring suspense back into the story.
Wain, and I'm going to leave it up to you to discover why this matters, uses Martin Mull to play a contemporary version of Kenney. Mull is fantastic as an unreliable narrator, but it fits into the story quite nicely. Kenney, with his drug and alcohol fueled past, wouldn't always be the best narrator for an audience that craves authenticity. The reason being is that he doesn't actually remember details of what happens. The biopic, then, is this marvelously meta presentation of things that may or may not have happened. Mull as Kenney is self-aware of the film around him. He points out inaccuracies and discusses the role of film as a means of conveying information in an entertaining way. Sometimes when a movie breaks the fourth wall, it's a means of being cute or clever. Rather, when A Futile and Stupid Gesture breaks the fourth wall, it is meant to give a greater context for the events in the story. After all, real life rarely follows act structure, so Mull's commentary act as footnotes to the events on screen. I love this so much. Mull becomes a running commentary, watching the movie with you. But he's funny, so it just adds to the whole mood of the picture. And since the movie is painfully meta, the casting of the movie only adds to the film. Unlike Churchill, who has a famous personality, Doug Kenney was always the man behind the page. He played characters on his radio show, but rarely was it Doug himself. This leaves Will Forte to do whatever he wants with the character. I have a feeling that Wain's direction was in the ballpark of "Do what's funny" because Forte often relies on many of his comic deliveries to represent Kenney's voice.
But the casting is inspired. Every time a famous comedian from the '70s would appear in the movie, some other contemporary actor would fill in that spot. I don't want to put a list here, but if you are just curious without having to watch the movie, look at the IMDB page. It is fabulous. The weird one that weirdly works is Domhnall Gleeson. It's weird that I feel like I discovered him in In Time, but he's just all over the place. Also, kudos to Gleeson for having such a good American accent that I didn't recognize him with a wig on for the first portion of the movie. (My reaction? "Hey, that guy kinda looks like Domhnall Gleeson." Aces, Tim. Aces.) There is one casting choice that makes me fall in love with this movie than anything else. It's the guy who plays Chevy Chase. Now, my wife disagrees with me on this one. She said that casting choice was too distracting (see how coy I am with avoiding spoilers? You're welcome), but I thought it was a wonderful send up. The movie doesn't necessarily over-rely on how much the actor looks like the real person so much as leans heavily into someone who can portray the essence of a character. This, far and away, is the best choice for the film. Every time a new celeb showed up, I watched carefully to see if they got the mannerisms right. Based on my limited knowledge of these celebrities inner lives, I couldn't stop chuckling. (I watch a lot of pop culture, guys. They got it.)
I'm kind of always impressed by Wain's restraint. I always associate Wain with Wet Hot American Summer (one of my favorite comedies), Stella, and The State. The watermark on Wain's comedy is absurdism. It's absolutely bonkers, but I keep forgetting that he knows when to rein that in and when to let it fly. A Futile and Stupid Gesture is a masterclass at maintaining balance. The movie is a biopic and deals with the darkness that Kenney dealt with. These moments are tonally perfect and addresses a seriousness that haunted this comedian. It then uses comedy not to relieve the audience from what has been seen, but to contextualize it in the world of Doug Kenney. What happens is this back-and-forth between the darkness and the light. It never becomes preachy; it never becomes absurd. Instead, what it does right is that it becomes risky. The choices made throughout the film are inspired and this might be my favorite biopic. I can't help but compare it to American Splendor or Man on the Moon, both of which tell traditional stories in non-traditional ways. Kenney's story is really good. Yeah, it's about how fame corrupts and we've seen that before. But it is in the context of a man who was relatively unknown himself, despite the fame of his creations. I love this movie and I might actually give it the honored acclaim of giving it a rewatch. It is offensive as get out, so I can't recommend it to anyone. But it is also a brilliant movie and I loved every minute of it.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.