Thursday, March 29, 2018

A Futile And Stupid Gesture Is Tragically Messy And Middling

The prospect of David Wain, the man behind Wet Hot American Summer, doing a movie chronicling the rise of National Lampoon and how that impacted one of its creators, Doug Kenney, is one that sounds oh so promising in theory, especially since one would think Wain affinity for stylized humor would mean that it'd be impossible for such a film to feel like a typical Hollywood biopic. Unfortunately, that very same film, entitled A Futile And Stupid Gesture, does indeed end up suffering from feeling too routine, a word one usually doesn't think of when discussing David Wain's work, but here we are.

A Futile And Stupid Gesture spans the life of Doug Kenney (Will Forte) from his college days to his time at National Lampoon and well beyond that. His time at college see's Kenney making friends with Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson), with the two sharing a love for absurd comedy that bridges the gap between their differing personalities. Kenney convinces Beard to take a chance on his idea to create a humor magazine, a proposition every big magazine publisher thinks is a foolhardy errand. Eventually, the duo do manage to get their idea off the ground, and after a rocky start, the wildly controversial National Lampoon magazine soon spreads like wildfire across the nation.

As the fame of their work escalates, Doug Kenney turns to copious amounts of drugs to cope with all the anxiety induced by his workload, which sends him into a downward spiral that reveals itself to be connected to personal issues from his past. The entire tale is narrated by an older version of Kenney (played by Martin Mull), who provides the most amusing moments of the film, namely setting up a gag involving a large patch of scrolling text explaining all the deviations to reality that the film took. A Futile And Stupid Gesture really should have had more of these over-the-top comedic touches throughout its story, which too often opts for undercooked story elements.

The screenplay, penned by John Aboud and Michael Colton (this is the first David Wain directorial effort that Wain did not also have some hand in writing), tries to tell the tale of both National Lampoon's ascension to fame and also Doug Kenney's long-term decline in mental health, which really ends up hurting the whole project in a number of ways. For starters, cramming so much into a single movie running just over 100 minutes (and that's with credits) means the individual events that shape both National Lampoon and Doug Kenney never get to have a major impact, they all just come and go in a hurried flash so we can make sure we get everything connected to National Lampoon that people recognize into one film.

Plus, it too often feels like the individual elements of the story aren't gelling cohesively. A Futile And Stupid Gesture story of Kenney's self-destruction keeps feeling like it gets interrupted by a National Lampoon biopic. Considering how much of a hand Kenney had in the biggest National Lampoon's successes, it's shocking these two story elements don't work in natural harmony together, but as executed here, it just feels like a pair of seperate stories are struggling to breathe. A real shame the script feels like such a mess given that Aboud and Colton's writing does have a number of memorably funny pieces of dialogue while the performances are overall strong.

Wain's ability to work well with actors was on full display in Wet Hot American Summer and he manages to use that skill to get some solid work out of the ensemble cast (which includes a number of tiny appearances by various comedians playing young versions of real-life people like Chevy Chase or Christopher Guest), though Will Forte's performance as Doug Kenney felt serviceable but too overly reminiscent of past performances of his. This has the unfortunate side effect of making A Futile And Stupid Gesture's depiction of Doug Kenney feel like like a Will Forte caricature from Saturday Night Live rather than a fully formed person, though, to be fair to Forte, he's far from the only person to not do Kenney and his story justice in A Futile And Stupid Gesture.

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