On paper, A Futile and Stupid Gesture isn’t a bad idea for a movie. We’ve had worse ideas for a feature-length film before. It attempts to detail the rise and fall of National Lampoon—from its humble beginnings to its eventual demise—told primarily from the point of view of one of its creators, Doug Kenney. Kenney in the film is portrayed in the story primarily by Will Forte, but also acts as our narrator as an older version played by Martin Mull. All of that sounds fine.
What resulted from this idea is a rather middling movie that has some laughs and tells a moderately engaging story simply because it features a bunch of people we have come to know over the years but ultimately fails to do a whole lot more. If it aimed to give us much insight into its protagonist it didn’t succeed, and it lacks any emotional resonance to make us feel anything once it ends. The story also winds up feeling more generic than it probably should—it points out, breaking the fourth wall as it does, that many details were changed “for pacing, dramatic impact, or just ’cause we felt like it.” That takes away some of its intrinsic value as a biopic, and also let the filmmakers rely more on formula than we’d like.
The plot follows Kenney and Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) as they start up a comedy magazine called National Lampoon—an offshoot from the Harvard Lampoon—that eventually became a bigger brand. You’ve probably heard of the National Lampoon movies, for instance. The humor pushed boundaries and resonated with a lot of people, leading to its surprising success.
But with success comes various pressures and rivalries and jealousies, all of which you’ve seen played out better in stronger movies. The movie doesn’t want to take much of it seriously, which is exactly how we wind up taking it. Beyond the surface stuff, we don’t really get to know anyone in this movie and only know in broad strokes what they think and feel—both of which feel tailor-made for whatever plot beat the film wants to hit next.
If you want a light afternoon watch, this’ll do.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture isn’t without its joys, though. There are some strong laughs scattered throughout, particularly in its first half. It’s witty and its constant acknowledgment that it’s a movie by its narrator is clever. Its opening scene has the narrator being given direction on what to say; it makes it very clear early on that it knows it’s a movie. And since it’s only ever going for a surface-level understanding of its characters, that isn’t an immersion-breaking problem.
The other aspect of A Futile and Stupid Gesture that’s rewarding for the audience is seeing a whole host of talented actors—most of whom are comic actors—show up in smaller roles. Many of them are emulating real people, which can be quite funny. Joel McHale, for instance, gets to play Chevy Chase—with whom he worked on Community. I could go a day just listing all the actors in this movie, so have a look at a cast list online and see for yourself. There will be a lot of people you recognize.
Anyone looking for a true-to-life, in-depth look into the creation and downfall of National Lampoon is going to want to look past A Futile and Stupid Gesture. But if you want a light, breezy, moderately engaging comedy that tells that story at a surface level of depth, well, it works as that. It’ll make you laugh a bit and it’ll awe you with its talented cast. It just won’t engage you on an emotional or intellectual level, which is something most people like from their biopics. If you’re looking for a deeper look, there’s a documentary from a couple of years back called Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. Check that out instead. If you want a light afternoon watch? This’ll do.
Conclusion: A Futile and Stupid Gesture is a light and breezy biopic.
Recommendation: Only watch A Futile and Stupid Gesture if you’re not looking for an in-depth look into National Lampoon.