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If you don’t read this review, we’ll kill this dog - 'A Futile and Stupid Gesture'

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Casual comedy fans – particularly those of a younger generation – may not be familiar with Doug Kenney. However, anyone who has any interest in the comedic craft has reaped the benefits of his groundbreaking work.

Kenney – who co-founded the subversive humor magazine The National Lampoon before branching out into stage, radio and film – was a weirdo shooting star in the comedy world, one who shone brightly and ultimately burned out too fast.

“A Futile and Stupid Gesture” – based on Josh Karp’s book of the same name – tells the story of Kenney’s rapid ascent and subsequent fall. Directed by David Wain, the film goes out of its way to paint its subject as a genius, a true icon, but despite its sprawling efforts – including a deep and talented cast - it never quite goes beyond a surface-level exploration of Kenney. The result is a serviceable biopic with a few flashes; not terrible, but not nearly what we might have hoped it to be.

Doug Kenney (Will Forte, TV’s “The Last Man on Earth”) is a young man from a small town in Ohio, a strange sort whose parents Harry (Harry Groener, “A Cure for Wellness”) and Stephanie (Annette O’Toole, “Women Who Kill”) don’t understand him and can’t get over the passing of his older brother.

It’s only when he gets to Harvard that he finds a kindred spirit. Doug and fellow traveler Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) serve as the editors of the legendary humor magazine The Harvard Lampoon, but when college comes to an end, Doug is left to decide what comes next.

So he decides to take the Lampoon national.

With a skeptical-but-loyal Henry by his side, Doug recruits a collection of some of the weirdest comedic voices of the ‘60s counterculture to come work for him. Folks like Michael O’Donoghue (Thomas Lennon, “Pottersville”), Tony Hendra (Matt Lucas, “Alice Through the Looking Glass”), Anne Beatts (Natasha Lyonne, TV’s “Orange is the New Black”) and Brian McConnachie (Neil Casey, TV’s “Big Mouth”) contribute to the Lampoon’s unique sensibility as it launches in 1970.

The magazine’s success leads to offshoots in different media. There was the “National Lampoon Radio Hour” and the legendary “Lemmings” stage show (both of which helped kickstart a whole lot of comedy careers – most of the earliest players on “SNL,” for instance); those in turn led to films like “Animal House” and “Caddyshack.”

And in the center of the maelstrom is Kenney, whose successes are constantly undercut by his own issues, whether they be drugs or adulterous affairs or financial mismanagement or what have you. All of it ultimately leads to an unfortunate and tragic end.

There’s no question that modern comedy owes a massive debt to Doug Kenney. The National Lampoon served as the inspiration for an entire generation of writers and performers. That spirit of satiric anarchy became the foundation of a comic pantheon.

And yet, it feels as though Wain and company did him something of a disservice here. Don’t get me wrong – the movie is entertaining enough. But there’s something missing. It feels as though there’s more telling than showing, so we never really get an accurate sense of what made Kenney so brilliant. And while there are a few feints toward deeper meaning, the story generally stays in the shallow end of the pool – it’s a bit more hagiographic than one would have hoped.

(The presence of Martin Mull as a present-day version of Kenney who narrates the proceedings is a device that feels … off. It’s a choice that feels equal parts misguided and morbid, one that feels both tacked-on and tacky. Honestly, Doug Kenney would probably have loved it.)

Forte is fine as Doug. There’s an inherent Forte-ness to him that is inescapable, but it’s usually only problematic when he attempts that escape. His quiet weirdness suits the role. Gleeson is actually a delight as the staid, pipe-smoking Henry; he projects that sense of a staid exterior masking an interior freak. The dynamic between him and Forte is one of the highlights of the film.

The rest of the cast manages varying degrees of success. Lennon and Lyonne are quite engaging; Lucas and Casey less so. The women in Kenney’s life get short shrift across the board, though Emmy Rossum has a couple of good moments. The ensemble is riddled with familiar actors playing other familiar actors – again with varying degrees of success. It should be noted, however, that the best of the bunch is Joel McHale as Chevy Chase; it’s an inspired bit of casting and McHale is exceptional.

“A Futile and Stupid Gesture” is plenty watchable, well-paced with a few solid bits. The admiration that all involved hold for Kenney is obvious throughout. Unfortunately, the film never does much more than scratch the surface. Most of the sharp edges have been sanded smooth. We’re shown much of what Kenney did and with whom he did it, but we get very little of the underlying why.

And the why is what we came for.

[2.5 out of 5]


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