‘Futile’ is love letter to era of comedy defined by Lampoon

Don’t think of “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” as a biofilm of Doug Kenney.

Kenney, co-founder of National Lampoon magazine and a screenwriter on both “Animal House” and “Caddyshack,” is the subject of the Netflix original movie that premiered Friday. For those looking for a glimpse inside the troubled mind of an influential comedic legend, the documentary “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon” probably is a better place to turn.

As played by Will Forte, Kenney is driven and drug-addled, striving for the approval of a distant father up until — spoiler alert — his death in Hawaii in 1980 a month after the release of “Caddyshack.” Some believe his death was a suicide. Others argue that his plummet while hiking in Hawaii was an accident. “Animal House” co-writer Harold Ramis famously said, “Doug probably fell while he was looking for a place to jump.”

Kenney’s brand was irreverence, so a reverent, traditional biofilm would be the wrong tack to take. What “A Future and Stupid Gesture” lacks in insight about its subject, it makes up for by being a love letter to the generation of comedy he helped spawn.

The approach of director David Wain and screenwriters Michael Colton and John Aboud is to treat the rules of a biofilm the way Kenney might have. The subject may have died at age 33, but the movie opens with Martin Mull playing a present-day Kenney, serving as narrator of the film and complaining about the flowery and gushing praise of that narration.

They take a few shots at the exclusively white and overwhelmingly male sphere that National Lampoon existed in during the 1970s. They also include a scroll of all the liberties they took in bringing the story of Kenney and National Lampoon to the screen (and, since you’re watching the movie on Netflix, you can pause it and read what all of them are).

Blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references to classic National Lampoon covers and articles fly past. When Kenney’s marriage implodes, the story is told in a series of captioned photo panels, like one of the bits that regularly filled the magazine. Is it illuminating? Not particularly, but it’s funny and oddly appropriate for its subject.

The movie also is filled with “Easter eggs” that show the affection the creators have for Kenney’s work. A couple of the best involve “Animal House,” which came out shortly after my 16th birthday and always will be one of my favorite movies.

Mark Metcalf, who played sadistic ROTC leader Douglas C. Niedermeyer in “Animal House,” plays one of the publishers who turns down the idea for National Lampoon. Not only is his character pure Niedermeyer, he even asks Kenney and co-creator Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson), “What are you going to do with your life?,” the same question Metcalf poses to his son in the Twisted Sister video “I Wanna Rock?”

“Animal House” ends by showing where each of the characters ended up. Sorority sister Babs Janson became a tour guide for Universal Studios. In “Futile,” Kenney has a fight on the lot with a studio executive while working on the screenplay for “Caddyshack.” The the tour group that witnesses the fiasco is being led by Martha Smith, who played Babs in “Animal House.”

There are some wonderfully meta bits of casting, like Joel McHale playing Chevy Chase, his former co-star on “Community.” And the cast includes veterans of “Saturday Night Live” and The State and other younger comedic actors whose work clearly was inspired by the Lampoon sensibility.

As someone who has read the book it’s based on, who’s watched “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” and grew up with the comedy it celebrates, I am the target audience for the movie, so it’s hard for me to evaluate it without the nostalgic glow it evoked. But those factors also could turn me into its harshest critic, and I thoroughly enjoyed this movie.

To paraphrase a classic Lampoon magazine cover, if you don’t watch this movie, we’ll kill this dog.

Andy Gray is the entertainment writer for the Tribune Chronicle. Write to him at agray@tribtoday.com

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