A Futile and Stupid Gesture Captures Doug Kenney While Respecting His Mystery

Photo: John P. Fleenor/Netflix/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The makers of A Futile and Stupid Gesture might have wondered if that title would be the verdict on their biopic of Doug Kenney, the National Lampoon co-founder and co-writer of Animal House. His onscreen alter ego (Will Forte) refers to himself as “the man who changed comedy forever” — too hyperbolic, though Kenney certainly ushered in the ongoing age of barbed irony and reverse snobbery. When Animal House came out, someone (I can’t remember who) said that mainstream comedy in the preceding decade preached, “I’m okay, you’re okay,” whereas Kenney’s Lampoon aesthetic (which would go on to influence David Letterman and many others) was, “I’m okay, you’re an asshole.” The challenge of doing a Kenney biopic is that, however interesting (and sad) his life might have been, it’s the work that sets him apart. Director David Wain and screenwriters John Aboud and Michael Colton have decided to make a Doug Kenney movie that Kenney could have written — or at least co-written.

For the most part, they bring that notion off. Working from an evocative biography by Josh Karp, they’ve created an impishly meta cartoon that manages to squeeze in some serious themes — although I’m not sure it leaves you with more than a desire to read (or reread) Kenney’s most famous Lampoon works. (Among them is a mock high-school yearbook that lacerates the kind of straitlaced ’50s and early ’60s archetypes that defined American aspiration.)

Will Forte plays the young Kenney with long, lank blond hair and wire rims, while Martin Mull is the older incarnation who supplies narration. (There’s a meta joke about Mull’s Kenney in the final moments that I won’t spoil.) Forte capture Kenney’s mix of snottiness and lovability and sets the movie’s swift pace, but he doesn’t quite capture Kenney’s guru magnetism. Over the years, I’ve met people (Harvard types, Lampoon types, ’60s–’70s bohemian types) who knew him, and their eyes mist up when invoking his name. (I think the late George W.S. Trow was in love with him.)

The heart of the movie is Kenney’s intense partnership with the odd, formal Henry Beard, played by the amazingly versatile Domhnall Gleeson, the spelling of whose name I’ll never not have to look up. (It’s pronounced Doe-nall.) Kenney meets Beard at the Harvard Lampoon and recognizes his perfect straight man — a low-key young man whose aristocrat airs (Beard dresses formally and smokes a pipe) have a built-in irony. They’re a sophisticated pair but also like kids play-acting sophistication. They’re constantly trying out jokes on each other while also looking to pick up girls.

Any reservations about the 47-year-old Forte looking college age are dispelled by a joke that invokes his name and explodes the whole dopey biopic artifice. It’s Brechtian. Or Kabuki-esque. Or just Lampoon-y. After Kenney and Beard manage to talk minor-league specialty publisher Matty Simmons (Matt Walsh) to bankroll a national version of the Lampoon, Mull’s narrator is quick to point out (before you or anyone else can) that there are few women and nonwhite men in this office. It’s a snotty white boys’ club, heavy on Ivy League types. Thomas Lennon’s Michael O’Donoghue is maybe the closest thing to a minority: He’s certifiable.

Partly A Stupid and Futile Gesture is a business story: how these anti-Establishment Establishment types hit on the idea of using conservative, Norman Rockwell-esque drawings and photos to illuminate sick and disgusting content. The dog with the gun to its head (“Buy this issue or we’ll kill this dog”) put the magazine on people’s radar.

The other part of the movie takes off from the second half of the opening line quoted above: “I was the man who changed comedy forever — but I couldn’t change myself.” A little on the nose, but people who knew Kenney say he didn’t seem long for this world. He could never win the respect of his dad back in Klamath Falls, Minnesota. He ran away from the Lampoon during a nervous breakdown and then showed up many months later, writing much of the magazine when Beard decamped with his sudden riches. Perhaps, the film suggests, Beard steadied him. The script elides much of the internal tension that Karp’s book details, especially the Lampoon takeover by the outspoken Republican P.J. O’Rourke — a bête noir of O’Donoghue and others. The focus shifts to other media, chiefly a radio show that helped launch Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Christopher Guest, and so many others (played by semi-look-alikes). Although Kenney wastes no time in blowing off Lorne Michaels and missing the Saturday Night Live boat, he’s quickly pitching Animal House, which will go on to be the most successful comedy to that point in time.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture skips along agreeably with fun transitions (magazine covers mixed with shots of Kenney’s personal life going south) but without many memorable scenes: It always seems one step to the periphery of its own story. Joel McHale does well as Chevy Chase, though he seems too nice. Emmy Rossum plays the actress Kathryn Walker, who watched Kenney’s final act from as close as one could get at the point where his whole life was cocaine, alcohol, and rage at the addition of gopher-puppet scenes to his script for Caddyshack — which Kenney said written to “get back at all the snobs and idiots my dad worked for.” But snobs and idiots shut him out in the end and he hated the final movie. The sudden conclusion of his life story is as unsatisfactory onscreen as in life — which I mean as praise.

There are lots of people — fans of Animal House, Caddyshack, and their progeny — who’ll watch Kenney’s story with a touch of envy, however grim its finale. He was the outsider who became a rich and fashionable insider and then self-destructed rather than stay in a club that would have him. If you’ve ever seen Joan Micklin Silver’s good Boston-based alternative-newspaper comedy Between the Lines (1977), that’s Kenney in the final shot — the long-haired guy at the bar whom Jeff Goldblum’s rock critic charms into buying the drinks. A cute bit, but even with Animal House’s release on the horizon his look of resignation seems real. A Futile and Stupid Gesture captures that Kenney while respecting his mystery. It’s not particularly illuminating, but it’s far from futile.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture Captures Doug Kenney’s Mystery