Like many college grads, Doug Kenney wasn’t sure where his career path would take him. So rather than dive into a job he couldn’t care less about, Kenney convinced his college writing partner, Henry Beard, to ditch his legal career and join Kenney to launch a magazine. It seemed like a sensible idea since the pair achieved success while running their alma mater’s humor mag, The Harvard Lampoon. They figured they might as well continue doing something they love with the promise that “the day it stops being fun, we’ll walk away.”
When trying to identify the Algonquin Round Table of writers and performers in American comedy, one needs to look no further than the founding staff of The National Lampoon magazine. Beard and Kenney’s 1970 startup became an incubator for some of the most important comedic voices near the end of the 20th century.
Based on the 2006 book A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever, adapted by screenwriters Michael Colton and John Aboud, the project was given cinematic life by director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer). What this tale needed most is focus, and because Wain was a part of his own generation’s important comedic movement (The State on MTV), he proved to be quite at home decoding the chaos of the generation that inspired him. Wain has shown time and again that he has a knack for directing large ensembles, which came in quite handy because Futile not only highlight’s Kenney’s journey as a young publisher turned screenwriter but also manages to vibrantly feature many of the colorful figures surrounding him.
Turning a genre on its head is old hat for Wain; he’s successfully done a sendup of summer camp films with the Wet Hot movie and Netflix TV series. Thus, the challenge in Futile became how to strip away the tired skin of the traditional biopic while simultaneously breathing life into a long dead genre. Wain’s ammunition stems from Colton and Aboud’s script, which smartly includes an elderly version of Kenney as the film’s narrator who continuously breaks the fourth wall to lead the audience down the path of Kenney’s rise and subsequent self-destruction. Wain provides an immersive view of Kenney’s world when we most need it but also allows for the distance required to take it all in. While it’s clear Kenney had some depressive tendencies and his drug use only provided Band-aid levels of relief, Futile never dips its feet into melodramatics and instead celebrates Kenney’s infectious sense of humor and irreverent ideas.
For film and TV fans, it’s all kinds of awesome to see how the headliners of Saturday Night Live’s first season started at the Lampoon and how Kenney became a co-writer on the beloved comedies Animal House and Caddyshack. It’s so much fun to peek behind the scenes on the making of those classic films that one can only wish the film were longer. But that’s a credit again to the writers and Wain for delivering such entertaining content. Will Forte as Kenney delivers a helluva performance that never disappoints, and the casting of Joel McHale to play his Community co-star Chevy Chase was inspired.
The pacing of the film moves at a breakneck speed and seems to charge along even faster once Kenney’s drug use deepens. The laughs never stop as Kenney refuses to ever take his life’s more serious moments too seriously. And while we can see a shadow of sadness looming nearby him, the entire film seems to be a marathon of sorts to escape it. Ultimately, the choice of the filmmakers to celebrate Kenney’s comedic instincts rather than to try to fabricate an inner life, which many of his closest colleagues never fully understood, was the right way to honor his work and drive audiences to seek out more of it.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture premiered at Sundance, but you can watch it right now on Netflix—so go check it out.
FROM THE 2018 SUNDANCE GUIDE:
The National Lampoon name became globally recognized after the monumental success of Animal House—but before the glory days, it was a scrappy yet divinely subversive magazine and radio show that introduced the world to comedic geniuses like Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner. The driving force behind National Lampoon was Doug Kenney (Will Forte), and his truly wild and crazy story unfolds in A Futile and Stupid Gesture from Harvard to Hollywood to Caddyshack and beyond.
Director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer) has had three prior features at the Sundance Film Festival and is firmly established as one of the great comedy directors. Utilizing an outstanding ensemble cast, including Domhnall Gleeson, Joel McHale, and Emmy Rossum, Wain understands that to tell this story right you need to bypass accuracy and head straight for authenticity. In the spirit of National Lampoon, Wain takes a plethora of creative licenses to get at the even-truer story of perhaps the most influential comedy force of the last 50 years.
David Wain has directed and co-written several films, including Wet Hot American Summer and Role Models. He co-created and directed both of the Netflix Wet Hot American Summer spin-off miniseries, and he’s written, directed, and/or acted in dozens of other projects. Wain grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, graduated from NYU, and his debut short film, Aisle Six, played at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. He lives in Los Angeles with his two sons.
Cast & Credits
Director: David Wain
Screenwriter: John Aboud / Michael Colton
Based On The Book By: Josh Karp
Producers: Peter Principato / Jonathan Stern
Executive Producers: Ben Ormand / Michael Colton / John Aboud / David Wain / Edward H. Hamm Jr. / Sean McKittrick / Ed Helms
Director Of Photography: Kevin Atkinson
Production Designer: Jonah Markowitz
Editors : Jamie Gross / Robert Nassau
Music By: Craig Wedren
Principal Cast: Will Forte / Martin Mull / Domnhall Gleeson / Matt Walsh / Joe McHale / Emmy Rossum /