A Futile and Stupid Gesture feels like a silly, carefree project in the way it should. It doesn’t come close to being the darkly touching story it could be considering its subject matter, so it’s good that it swings hard to the other side of the spectrum and stuffs it to the gills with every single comedic actor and plenty of goofs. Not much sticks with you by the end, but it’s a slick ride down all the same.
Coming from two writers best known for commentating on Best Week Ever and Wet Hot American Summer director David Wain, A Futile and Stupid Gesture is the filmic adaptation of the book of the same name by Josh Karp. It roughly encapsulates the history of the National Lampoon magazine and its growth into a radio show, a movie studio, and a tragic slide into obscurity. This movie, however, centers it around cofounder Doug Kenney (Will Forte) and his uneasy success.
To his credit, Forte sells the character well. His natural ability to portray absurdity just one step outside of plausible is in high demand here as Kenney is an undeniably absurd figure. It’s a sheen of unreliability that makes the flaws stemming from his insecurities really work.
And that’s necessary because as fascinating as it is to walk through the broad, sweeping arcs of his and National Lampoon’s history, the story doesn’t do a lot to capitalize on the actual drama of it. As was the time, basically everyone was hooked on some sort of vice, and Kenney’s was cocaine. And for all the tribulations that arise from that powdery mound, the conflicts tend to come and go with less heft and weight than Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
Then there’s Kenney’s failings as a husband, a friend, a leader, a partner, and so many more labels, but it all comes down to presenting it as a little speed bump to the next joke. While that can be tragic in itself, there’s little the movie does to make it that way. There’s less of a cogent tale being woven and more of a series of vignettes roughly stitched together.
The presentation of the characters tends to lend it a skit-based feeling, too. Joel McHale playing Chevy Chase is less of a performance and more of McHale wearing a wig. Jon Daly brings out a decent Bill Murray impression. Basically, in a story full of recognizable names and faces, it plays out like a stage production of the credits.
It works most of the time, though. The portrayal of a lot of these real people may feel exaggerated, but these are pretty much them just put in only slightly punched up situations. Michael O’Donoghue, for instance, was as batshit as Thomas Lennon plays him, perhaps even more so. And these one-off caricatures are what these outlandish figures of comedy history necessitate.
They’re also luckily anchored by some solid and genuine performances. Domhnall Gleeson works terrifically undercover as the oldest young person ever Henry Beard and once Emmy Rossum enters the picture as Kathryn Walker, Forte is given another foil to work off of to highlight Kenney’s follies. And then Annette O’Toole comes in with some hard-hitting gravitas as Kenney’s mother.
This mishmash of comedy and drama mostly works but almost entirely at the hands of the performers and their tremendous charisma and ability to make throwaway bits actually funny or emotional. It otherwise feels stuck in between what David Wain’s generally quiet and subtle directing thrives in. Either the absurdity of the WHAS projects or the low-key tenderness of a Role Models and not betwixt the two, but unfortunately, that’s exactly where A Futile and Stupid Gesture lands.
Final Score: 7 out of 10