Even from the outside, comedy has always appeared to be an exclusive club, and like any club, there is a hierarchy within it. Sure, there are a number of funny people who have left their mark on the industry, and demonstrated a deep love and gift for the craft, but then there are the game-changers whose work reshaped the art form within their lifetimes. This short list of notable names includes stars like Lenny Bruce and Richard Prior, but equally influential and revolutionary, albeit lesser known, is Doug Kenney.
Kenney was the mastermind behind arguably the greatest contributions to comedy of the 1970s, starting with his formation of National Lampoon Magazine, and ending with co-writing and producing the cult classic Caddyshack. It was a legacy crafted over only 10 years, but a remarkable one full of incredible highs and horrific lows. As such, director David Wain found himself with a serious challenge trying to capture the man’s life in his new film, A Futile And Stupid Gesture, and with assistance from some of the most hilarious comedians and comedic actors working today, he mostly succeeds. While it’s a tad erratic in its storytelling, it takes an impressively clever and engaging approach towards the life of a revered and deeply troubled man, and blends humor and drama in a way never before seen in Wain’s work.
Much like Doug Kenney (portrayed by Will Forte), David Wain has always possessed a certain energy that sees funny people flock to his work, and while regular collaborator Paul Rudd is only featured in a blink-and-miss-it cameo, A Futile And Stupid Gesture is stacked like few other films. Interestingly, though, the ensemble has a way of exposing a unique flaw. The movie features Joel McHale as Chevy Chase, Jon Daly as Bill Murray, Jackie Tohn as Gilda Radner, John Gemberling as John Belushi, and Rick Glassman as Harold Ramis — the association all showcasing just how influential Kenney’s work really was. However, their special presence highlights a certain perspective on the comedic genius’ life as a sort of “Greatest Hits” reel, adjusting for the man’s lack of notoriety by spotlighting the legitimately famous people he bolstered (with none of them really getting much more than a single scene to do their thing). It’s an element of the plot that’s actually lampshaded by Martin Mull’s “Modern Doug” — who narrates the whole thing as an omniscient narrator — but just because a movie points out its own issues doesn’t fully absolve it of them.
Within that conversation, screenwriters Michael Colton and John Aboud deserve commendation for their meta approach to the story, adding a much needed clever twist to the standard biopic method that is constantly threatened. Whether it’s to steer the movie away from its weirdly somber opening, explain why members of the cast don’t quite look like their real-life counterparts, or literally list factual discrepancies, Mull’s character regularly butts in for a quick explanation throughout the film, and thankfully it never derails the story or pacing; instead legitimately coming across as the stylistic choices that they are. This is only furthered by David Wain’s utilization of elements from National Lampoon magazine, such as the “Foto Funnies,” and spot-on recreations of some of Doug Kenney’s most lasting images in pop culture — such as the famous “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog” cover, and scenes from Animal House.
David Wain’s comedic sensibility is generally more absurd and wacky — notable titles including Wet Hot American Summer and They Came Together — but A Futile And Stupid Gesture is a nice demonstration of his range as a storyteller. As you would expect from this material, as well as a cast that includes the names above as well as Matt Walsh, Thomas Lennon, Neil Casey, Matt Lucas, Natasha Lyonne, and Joe Lo Truglio, the film is often laugh-out-loud funny, and a wonderful tribute to its subject in that respect. However, it also doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to the more serious elements of Doug Kenney’s life, including his issue-ridden relationship with his best friend and business partner, Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson); his series of unfortunate romances and affairs; his meltdowns; and his drug abuse. The nature of the story creates some big swings in tone, but Wain never lets it feel jarring — only enlightening and reflective of reality.
The film certainly has the right star to bring it home in Will Forte… despite the fact that he is practically twice as old as Doug Kenney was when he was in his prime. The rubber-faced Saturday Night Live veteran is best known for projects like MacGruber and The Last Man On Earth, and his comedic skills are absolutely well utilized in A Futile And Stupid Gesture, but it’s his work here that is more reminiscent of his turn in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska that really stands out. Forte is a naturally funny performer, but that just makes it all the more impressive when he flips things and shows you the extent of his depth. He may not be the most perfectly accurate actor to play Kenney age-wise, but he shows why Wain made the absolute right choice casting him (plus, with a proper haircut and glasses the resemblance is surprisingly uncanny).
A Futile And Stupid Gesture is an imperfect biopic about an imperfect man. Doug Kenney may not be a household name, but David Wain and company make a serious and legitimate argument for why he should be — and delivers an entertaining film along the way. Its fun string of cameos, big laughs, and the excellent turn from Will Forte alone make it a worthy watch, but it also has the pleasant side effect of exposing a brilliant, troubled mind.