Given that it’s about a man who was famous for his ambivalence, particularly when it came to choosing a persona and sticking with it, it’s perhaps not surprising that the new Netflix movie A Futile and Stupid Gesture, a biopic of National Lampoon founder and Animal House screenwriter Doug Kenney, is somewhat confused about what it wants to be and who it’s aimed at.
If Kenney’s writing credits ring a bell, you probably won’t need to be told how influential he was. But rather than preaching to the (at this point largely ancient) choir, writers John Aboud and Michael Colton and director David Wain seem to want to win over younger converts. The film starts with the now-aged Doug (played by Martin Mull) telling the audience, “You’ve probably never heard of me” and then listing his accomplishments, egged on by an an off-screen interviewer who helpfully adds “I would say you did redefine comedy,” thus standing the first rule of dramatization—you show action that induces the desired emotional response instead of telling the audience what to feel—on its head.*
From here, AFASG continues to thumb its nose at all narrative conventions, veering between an anarchic comedy that revels in a raucous, taboo-breaking scene and a poignant Leaving Las Vegas–esque portrait of a sensitive, talented artist battling his demons until he ends up melting down in a resort hotel room. This confusion leads to some peculiar artistic choices, chiefly the use of the older Kenney as narrator.
For one thing—spoiler alert—Kenney died young. For another, Mull makes no attempt to be anything like Kenney, older or younger. And the casting of Mull is in itself strange, given the history the younger Mull had with the Lampoon gang when they moved in the same ’70s comedy circles. For example, one night Mull came to see one of the Lampoon’s spinoff live shows, sitting down in front and talking over the whole show. When he then had the temerity to go backstage to tell the cast how fabulous they were, Bill Murray, one of the performers, went for him, chasing Mull down the street with shouts of “You’re a medium talent, Mull! A medium talent!” Will Forte does a much better job as the younger Kenney, capturing his blend of empathy and caustic wit, as well as looking sufficiently like the writer to aid the suspension of disbelief, although only a sliver of the audience will know what the real Kenney looked like.
Sadly, most of the characterizations have more in common with Mull’s than Forte’s. Oddly, no attempt has been made to cast actors who look anything like more instantly recognizable comedy luminaries like Murray, Gilda Radner, Christopher Guest, John Belushi, and Harold Ramis, all of whom worked on the Lampoon’s radio and theatrical shows. Instead, they are identified by a caption and then given almost nothing to do (least of all be funny), name-checked only to bolster Kenney’s comedy credentials. At least Joel McHale, as Chevy Chase, Kenney’s partner in L.A. decadence and cocaine abuse, evokes the original despite the lack of physical resemblance.
The filmmakers have decided their best hope is to break the fourth wall in truly spectacular fashion and have Mull acknowledge the lack of verisimilitude directly, adding, “You think I looked like Will Forte when I was 27? You think Will Forte is 27?” This meta game might work if the tone remained farcical, but the ironic distancing makes it hard to get emotionally caught up in the sad story of Kenney’s self-destruction when the film enters Leaving Las Vegas territory.
An even odder decision is the choice of Lampoon writers to feature. Stalwarts like Sean Kelly, P.J. O’Rourke, Tony Hendra, and Michael O’Donoghue are barely glimpsed or don’t appear at all (another voice-over explains the film only had room for four writers) while Brian McConnachie, a frequent contributor but nevertheless a more marginal one, keeps popping up, though given nothing to do but spout unlikely concept titles. On top of that, McConnachie, who was handsome, debonair, and whimsical, is played by Neil Casey as dumpy, prissy, and weird, like a youthful Sydney Greenstreet.
There’s a sense that the filmmakers have bitten off more than they can chew by trying to cram both the biography and the panoramic overview into one feature. (There’s even a rapid crawl listing “things we changed from real life for pacing, dramatic impact, or just ’cause we felt like it.”) This Mad Men–like ambition—to explore the professional conflicts of a group of highly creative people, the sweeping changes in society they’re reflecting and responding to, and the conflicted genius suffering from imposter syndrome at its center—might have been better fit for the length of a series, and indeed series like Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here and HBO’s classic The Larry Sanders Show convey the combination of internal competitiveness and group cohesion that powers comedy scenes like the Lampooners’ more effectively than AFASG’s scattershot approach.
The movie is on firmer ground when it tackles Kenney’s private journey. Inspired by the thesis of Josh Karp’s Kenney biography of the same name, the film suggests that his conflicts arose from always falling short in the eyes of his father, a country club tennis pro who constantly compared the writer unfavorably to his deceased older brother. It also wisely puts Kenney’s relationship with his Harvard Lampoon collaborator and later National Lampoon co-editor Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) at the center of the story. Like all good collaborations, their strengths and weaknesses complemented each other. Where Kenney was shape-shifting, Beard was the soul of consistency. Where Kenney was flights of inspiration, Beard was professionalism itself. And when Kenney took off after two years, burned out by overwork and a divorce, Beard held down the fort on his own.
However, while “based on true events” fiction need not get every letter exactly right, one hopes that it’s true at least to the spirit of its subject, and here AFASG fails Kenney. The laser-sharp comedy writer was more than the talented fuck-up and food fight–starting man child the movie depicts. For one thing, while he might have participated in food fights, he left the job of starting them to his more obstreperous colleagues. He was also cultured and thoughtful, with sympathy for underdogs and a sense that satire should be a shield as opposed to a sword—a view not shared by all of his Lampoon colleagues.
The least likely of all the Kenney-inspired food fights (at least two of which were invented for the film) is the last one.* After Kenney’s death by either falling or jumping from a scenic lookout in Hawaii, his friends gathered at L.A.’s Magic Castle to say goodbye. In the film, Kenney tells Beard he doesn’t want everyone to be so sad at his funeral and there is only one way to fix it, whereupon Beard throws a handful of shrimp, and Belushi yells “Food fight!”, leading to pandemonium.* As it happens, while there was no food fight at Kenney’s wake, the sentiment about starting one is based in reality. “I said, ‘I’m going to start a food fight. Doug would have wanted it this way,’ ” Paul Krassner, editor of the ’60s magazine the Realist, told me for my book on the ’70s Lampoon and its comedy descendants. “It would have been so appropriate, but I was afraid I would become known forever as the asshole who did that.”
What Beard actually did is far more in character and revealing. There was some doubt as to whether he was even going to come because he had deliberately cut off contact with all but a few of his former colleagues ever since the day five years earlier when he pocketed a check for $3 million—his share of a buyout deal with the publisher—packed up his desk, and walked out of the Lampoon for good. But when one of the designated pallbearers failed to show up, someone pointed to Beard, who happened to be standing nearby, and said, “Henry. You.” Beard took up the casket.
Corrections, Jan. 29, 2018: This article originally mischaracterized a few of the film’s details. The off-screen interviewer tells Kenney, “I would say you did redefine comedy,” not “you probably redefined comedy.” The article also originally suggested that all of the food fights were invented by the film, when at least two are partially based in reality. Additionally, it mischaracterized the origins of the film’s final food fight, suggesting that Beard laments the sadness of the funeral in voice-over, throws sushi, and yells, “Food fight!” It’s Kenney who laments the sadness of the funeral and encourages Beard to throw the seafood, and it’s Belushi who yells, “Food fight!” Finally, Beard throws a handful of shrimp cocktail, not sushi.