It’s hard to talk about “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” — a somewhat funny and largely conventional movie about a very funny and wholly unconventional man — without talking about the film’s borderline-insane framing device. If you know absolutely nothing about “National Lampoon” co-founders Doug Kenney (Will Forte) and Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson), and would like to keep it that way until David Wain’s biopic can illuminate you on its own terms, consider this a reluctant spoiler warning. For everybody else… well, it’s certainly a choice.
Here’s the gist: Adapted from Josh Karp’s book of the same name, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” retraces the true story of how two subversive Harvard grads took the road less traveled, started the most dangerous satirical magazine in American history, and became ground zero for a generation of comics that included the likes of Bill Murray and Gilda Radner. It’s a classic rise-and-fall saga; the origins are humble, the successes are explosive, and the mountains of cocaine are enormous. You can see almost every beat coming a mile away, but that disarming predictability draws focus to the parade of modern comedians who cameo as their heroes, one era of talent saluting another. The imitations are amusingly poor across the board (though Lonny Ross is a dead ringer for Ivan Reitman, and Erv Dahl nails Rodney Dangerfield’s voice), but the love is real.
Most of all, it’s about the love that Wain and writers John Aboud and Michael Colton have for Kenney, who emerges as the lead character once it’s clear that Beard is destined for a more normal life. In fact, the filmmakers love Kenney so much that they spend most of the movie pretending he didn’t fall off (or jump from) a cliff and die back in 1980, when the comedy kingmaker was only 33.
And it’s not as if “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” simply withholds that information until the end. Far from it. The film is narrated by 74-year-old Martin Mull as modern-day Kenney — Kenney as he might look if he were still alive in 2018. Mull appears on screen and speaks directly to the camera, setting the scene and offering snarky commentary on whatever’s happening. Comedy nerds familiar with Kenney’s fate might be confused or feel in on the joke, while everybody else will just be confused. And shocked. As confused and shocked as the people in Kenney’s life probably felt when they learned it was cut short.
Either way, the climactic funeral scene — narrated by two dead Kenneys — is surreal enough to feel like one of the bits he might have done with Beard, albeit a touch more Kaufman-esque. The film’s title is borrowed from a scene in “Animal House,” but suicide is a futile and stupid gesture unto itself. In another movie, that might be an effective punch to the gut; here it’s so unearned that it only serves to reinforce the flimsiness of the previous 90 minutes.
Wain’s previous features range from solid (“The Ten”) to brilliant (“Wanderlust”) to epochal (“Wet Hot American Summer”), but the director is immediately hamstrung by the weight of a true story. We meet Kenney in 1958 on the way to his brother’s funeral, but it isn’t until much later that we begin to realize it’s one of those “the wrong kid died” situations, the “Walk Hard” reference as explicit as it sounds. It’s one of any number of moments where you can feel Wain fighting to stop his film away from going full Dewey Cox, his knack for parody at odds with his need for pathos. We’re told that Kenney was driven by an insatiable desire to please his tight-ass dad — that it might explain the descent into addiction that ultimately led to his death — but the idea is never given the time to grow roots.
Instead, Wain focuses on the fun stuff, like the friendship between Kenney and Beard, and the groundbreaking comedy that made the “National Lampoon” into an institution. Forte and Gleeson are solid together, the former as the mad genius and the other as the more-grounded straight man who nevertheless is on the same wavelength. Forte can do this stuff in his sleep, though Kenney’s Steve Jobs-like obsessive streak gives him a new edge. And Gleeson — so funny as the simpering Hux in “The Last Jedi” — delivers yet another dryly excellent comic performance; sometimes he’s so in the zone that his floppy black wig seems like it’s bad on purpose. The writing isn’t there to sell his character’s arc, but Gleeson is able to get it most of the way there. Well, part of the way there, anyway.
It helps that the definitive “National Lampoon” gags still feel dangerous, even (or especially) by today’s standards; the ridiculously horny movies that followed make it so easy to forget that the brand was more than naked co-eds and the oafs who tried to have sex with them. And yet, it hurts that “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” carries on that proud tradition by ironing any dimension out of its female roles, with Alex Garcia-Mata and Emmy Rossum as the girlfriends whom Kenney ignores, and Natasha Lyonne as the token woman in the writer’s room. Altering history to appease modern standards wouldn’t have done any good, but it does raise the question of whether or not this is a story that needed to be retold.
Mull’s modern-day character seems on the fence about that, but Kenney would likely have been delighted that Wain got the details right, pleased that “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” wasn’t afraid to exhume any of the selfishness or sexism that typified the most interesting stretch of its protagonist’s life. Maybe this is exactly the biopic that Kenney would want, silly and bittersweet and laced with regret. Unfortunately, the film is just good enough to convince us that he deserved better.