Most biopics are not good, and guess what
“We call this the William Randolph Hearst staircase. It’s named after John Updike.”
What a great line, and one that made me think “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” a biopic of National Lampoon co-creator Doug Kenney, might be rich with the same inspired absurdity that earned fans and protesters for a publication whose cover once declared, “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.”
Except, sadly, biopics are almost never good, or at least not when they so fail to capture either/both the creative spirit and complicated inner life of its subject. By all accounts Kenney had an awesomely warped mind and more than his share of demons. But in offering a relatively benign look at some of Kenney’s hits without achieving the chaotic energy that drove him both forward and off-course, director David Wain (the untouchable “Wet Hot American Summer” and underrated “Role Models”) and a writing team whose only other feature credit is “Penguins of Madagascar” misunderstand what made National Lampoon so potent. What may have seemed broad and fleeting was actually extremely specific, twisted and enduring.
Though Will Forte, one of our most underrated leading men, nearly saves the movie, illuminating Kenney with the kind of hysterical frustration that would lead him to pitch a disinterested publisher on Modern Sandwich magazine (one feature: Why is it so hard to find a good tomato?) and keep the ruse going longer than most would bother. He had a concise brilliance, and Forte pairs really well with Domhnall Gleeson (as Kenney’s friend, Harvard classmate and National Lampoon co-creator Henry Beard), a restrained riot as the responsible and thus increasingly frustrated half of the operation.
So it’s underwhelming and numbing to watch “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” remain at such a distance from the actual impact of the National Lampoon staff’s drug-fueled insanity (Jon Daly and Joel McHale are amusing in small roles as National Lampoon-turned-"SNL"-stars Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, respectively; versions of John Belushi and Gilda Radner are given only a couple lines) or Kenney’s inability to stay faithful to his wife (Camille Guaty). The film doesn’t do much to understand the publishing process or how and why material gets created and chosen, instead just depicting a few noteworthy issues and moving on to Kenney’s work as a writer on “Animal House” and “Caddyshack.” There is a sense that his dedication to quality clashes with his poor instincts regarding deadlines and accountability, but Wain’s too busy moving things along to capture anything particularly sobering about Kenney’s artistic pursuits and vices.
This story, also covered in average fashion in the documentary “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon,” might have been an Ivy League-pedigreed “The Wolf of Wall Street” for the comedy set -- appreciating the lowbrow takedown of the high-minded as well as the impact of pressure and money on friendship. “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” doesn't even deserve to carry the “The Social Network”’s books.