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Sundance 2018 Review: ‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’ Lampoons Meta Bio-Pic

A Futile and Stupid Gesture - Sundance Film Festival

Revisiting the History of National Lampoon is Hardly ‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’

Despite its satirical magazine being defunct for nearly two decades, the National Lampoon brand remains a groundbreaking guide of multimedia humor to this day. Douglas Tirola’s documentary, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead delved into that enthralling history with a more conventional approach three years ago at Sundance. Ironically enough, this year at Sundance brings us a more meta and utterly bonkers ride with A Futile and Stupid Gesture.

Based on the 2006 Josh Karp novel of the same name, A Futile and Stupid Gesture highlights the rise and fall of  National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney over the course of a decade. Kenney’s exploits originated from his time at the Harvard Lampoon as he revamped the magazine. Just like Mark Zuckerberg decades later, there’s plenty of multimedia innovation stemming from the prestigious institution.

Kenny (Will Forte), alongside writer Henry Beard (an almost unrecognizable Domhnall Gleeson) put their creative, satirical minds to good use. After some success with Bored of the Rings, an obvious parody of the J.R.R. Tolkien classic, the pair envision a larger audience with National Lampoon. The brand skyrockets to success and the talents recruited are now considered comedic icons. With the likes of Chevy Chase (Joel McHale), John Belushi (John Gemberling), Harold Ramis (Rick Glassman), Bill Murray (Jon Daly) and Ivan Reitman (Lonny Ross) just to name a few, it’s no surprise why National Lampoon became the success it did.

SEE ALSO: Sundance Interview: Joel McHale and Emmy Rossum on A Futile and Stupid Gesture

Director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer) turns our expectations on our head with an entertaining meta and self-aware experience. Throughout A Futile and Stupid Gesture, we find Martin Mull breaking the fourth wall as a narrating older Doug. Granted, in real life Kenney passed away much younger than the 70-year-old Mull is depicted. But then again, Forte is nowhere near the same age range as Kenney either. Age logic aside, there is more a focus on homage than realism. That carries over throughout the film. Joel McHale is no spitting image of Chevy Chase, but does he get the mannerisms down flat during those Caddyshack scenes. Midway through the film, there’s even a tongue-in-cheek running list of what was changed from real life to film. Good luck trying to catch them all without a pause button.

Wain essentially has to cover about a decade in little over 100 minutes. Amidst years of anarchic creativity, we do get the bullet points of what made Kenney and the National Lampoon brand click. Satirical covers of a dog being held at gunpoint and a flashing Minnie Mouse could only pave the way for such a lucrative multimedia empire. It’s not until National Lampoon ultimately went Hollywood with Animal House and Kenney-produced Caddyshack does it feel as if it transformed into something else. As someone who grew up with both comedies, pulling back the veil on both of those productions was rather surprising. Saturday Night Live and Airplane! are both treated as direct competition and is alarming to witness how these impacted the success of Lampoon.

While Lampoon is a thing of the past, Wain keeps A Futile and Stupid Gesture fresh with its zany narrative devices, while speaking louder to the modern-day anti-establishment.

Written by
Matt Marshall has been reviewing films since 2003, starting with "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." He specializes in home media, including 4K UHD, Blu-ray as well as box office analysis. He has a B.A. in Communications/Journalism from St. John Fisher College and resides in Rochester, NY.

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