You’ll laugh! You’ll cry!
BQB here with a review of Netflix’s A Futile and Stupid Gesture.
Brace yourself, noble reader.
What if I were to tell you that the man most responsible for the modern state of comedy is a man you most likely have never heard of?
Heck, I’m a comedy lover from way back and I had never heard of the late, great Doug Kenney. As a 1980s kid, I had a vague notion that National Lampoon was a company that made funny movies like Chevy Chase’s Vacation series but until I saw this film I had very little knowledge about how National Lampoon really started it all.
It’s the tale of Doug (Will Forte, perhaps in a role he was born to play) and Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson), two 1960s Harvard buddies who had a lot of fun when they were writers/editors for the Harvard Lampoon, Harvard University’s long-running comedy magazine.
When graduation threatens to tear the dynamic duo apart, wacky Doug talks straightlaced Henry into ditching law school (he has been accepted at several top schools) to run to New York to start a comedy magazine, “The National Lampoon” (done by leasing the name rights from Harvard.)
Numerous publishers tell the duo to eat dirt and/or pound sand but all it took was one yes and away they went. After struggling to get the publication off the ground, soon anyone interested in comedy is knocking on their door and their office becomes a veritable who’s who of the 1970s comedy scene, with pretty much every big name you can think of from that era getting their start in those hallowed halls.
Bill Murray. Chevy Chase. Gilda Radner. John Belushi. Christopher Guest. PJ O’Rourke. Harold Ramis. Anne Beatts. Michael O’Donaghue. The list goes on and on, many you have heard of, others you might not have but who were instrumental behind the comedic scenes. All got their start, not at Saturday Night Live as you (and even I) always thought but at National Lampoon.
Doug and Henry become big time successful dudes. While Henry maintains a level-head and handles the business side of things (sadly might be why you might not have heard of him until this movie and don’t worry I hadn’t either), Doug cracks under the pressure. All the deadlines, the demands from the publishing company, having to deal with the talent, working on a magazine and a radio show plus the need to continuously top his last project (always be funnier than your last project or else you lose fans) lead to Doug becoming an emotional wreck.
Alas, Doug falls victim to the twin vices of cocaine and women. He indulges in the white powder liberally, stuffing enough up his nose to kill a horse throughout the film. Though lucky to have a wonderful wife, Alex, he can’t control himself around women. Technically, most men can’t but most men never get the temptation. A comedy all star raking in the dough on the other hand? Too many babes to count. He loses his wife through cheating. He finds a loving girlfriend and just when you think he might have learned the error of his ways, alas, more cheating.
While Doug’s personal life is a wreck, his comedy success is non-stop. Becoming a millionaire from writing jokes would satisfy most people, but Doug is understandably irked when legendary comedy producer Lorne Michaels hires away all of his talent – his writers, his actors, pretty much everyone, to staff a new show you might have heard of, Saturday Night Live, Doug is bummed. To be fair, the movie claims that NBC pitched the idea of a National Lampoon comedy TV show to Doug’s publisher first and said publisher turned it down without Doug’s knowledge.
At any rate, Doug is forlorn from missing out his own opportunity to create TV gold and worse, that someone else spun gold from his yarn. While many would take their money and run at this point, Doug is motivated to go Hollywood and produces Animal House, what was at that time the highest grossing comedy movie ever made, ushering in a new era of raunchy comedy – all basically Doug’s revenge for SNL hiring his talent away.
I could go on but to do so would be a spoiler. Needless to say, the drugs wreck his brain. The loneliness of the cheating on and losing good women lifestyle takes its toll. Ultimately, he is his own worst enemy. While he has plenty to be proud of, he feels constant pressure to always top his last project. If his next project isn’t as funny, then he feels he has failed. Sadly, some family trauma from his youth comes into play, as he strives to be a success in the eyes of his parents but feels he can never please them.
STATUS: Shelf-worthy and I’m surprised it has taken me this long to see it. The film is mostly an homage to Kenny, but also a love letter from today’s comedians to the 1970s heavy hitters who started it all. Various comedic actors play those 1970s legends but to be honest, the film doesn’t really go out of its way to hire actors who look like those legends or at least try to make them up so they look like them. The film makes fun of this and of itself often. The story of an underdog who took a very unlikely project, turned it into a multi-million dollar empire, become filthy rich before he hit 30, got screwed by a greedy corporation only to come out on top with a hit movie of his own, all while dealing with drug and sex addiction…this is the stuff that Oscar films are made of and while the cast does great, I can’t help but think that if Netflix had invested a bit more money into this, they might have won some gold statues and been able to give Doug more of the recognition he deserved.
BONUS POINTS: Doug also made Caddyshack, which he thought was a lackluster sell-out movie, which is sad because I always thought it was very funny. Joel McHale, who starred alongside Chevy Chase in Community, does a decent Chevy Chase impression, though none of the actors really go out of their way to mimic their alter egos and you just have to pay attention to when the movie says who they are.