No dog was shot in the making of National Lampoon's most famous cover. But the legendary humor magazine built on the boomer generation's anti-establishment views — on politics, sex and capitalism — had already gleefully killed much that was sacred in its full-throttle mission to redefine what was funny about postwar America. Now its co-creator, Harvard-educated imp Doug Kenney, a figure of mostly inside-comedy notoriety — he also co-wrote "Animal House" and "Caddyshack" — has been bequeathed the biopic spotlight with David Wain's new movie "A Futile and Stupid Gesture."
It's a shrewd way to tell the Lampoon story, through its Midwestern-mauled, Irish Catholic misfit editor, who forged a taboo-busting adult-humor empire, the success of which was ultimately no salve for his inner demons (self-loathing, infidelity, drugs). There's something even appropriate about it starring Will Forte, alum to a comedy juggernaut ("Saturday Night Live") that, upon its debut in 1975, Kenney hated for hijacking Lampoon talent and aping its impudent style.
And yet "Futile" lies haphazardly between funny and not, as comedies about comedy tend to do. Wry, head-shaking smiles at bad behavior are many — open laughter is lacking. Wain maintains a frenetic, near-vaudevillian pace, but this is a tribute flick that rejoices in anarchy and tastelessness without being exhilaratingly either thing itself.
There is, however, a ticklish zing to the early, pun-filled, sardonic exchanges between Forte's Kenney and Domhnall Gleeson as classmate and best friend Henry Beard, pipe-smoking wag to Kenney's fire-setting cut-up. As they plot to take nationwide the high-mixed-with-low satire they'd perfected at the storied Harvard Lampoon, the movie takes on the engaging air of a counterculture-infused buddy comedy.
But that period-flavored screwball edge wanes once the hard work begins of telling a story, one that caroms from shambolic workplace farce (who are we offending now?) to triumphantly rock-scored montages (all those naughty covers and inside pages!) to sad clown saga when Kenney aggressively goes Hollywood, shifting his drug-fueled, self-destructive tendencies into fifth gear, and the origins of his crippling insecurities are revealed. As joke lines become coke lines, the movie inevitably suffers from the tonal switch, even when the tortured-comedian pathos is broken up with gags.
Forte is inspired casting, though, blessed with a disheveled-preppy, proto-nerd insouciance that somehow mixes charm, jerkishness and melancholy — you feel Kenney's need to belong, and to destroy wherever he belongs. It helps, too, that the movie's subject — though having inspired a biography (the source material for screenwriters Michael Colton and John Aboud) — was a behind-the-scenes god. It allows Forte, not to mention Gleeson, and those playing the original Lampoon gang (Natasha Lyonne as Anne Beatts, Thomas Lennon as Michael O'Donohughe, Matt Lucas as Tony Hendra, Matt Walsh as publisher Matty Simmons, among others) to coast on exuded irreverence without invoking unhelpful comparisons to personae we know.
That character cavalcade hits a cultural-history impasse, though, when the Lampoon expands into radio, stage ("Lemmings") and film, and performing icons have to be channeled: Chevy Chase (Joel McHale), Bill Murray (Jon Daly), Gilda Radner (Jackie Tohn), John Belushi (John Gemberling) and Christopher Guest (Seth Green). Some actors imitate, others offer brushstrokes, but the movie seems afraid to make them anything but famous window dressing. And Martin Mull — who narrates intermittently as an ill-conceived, fourth-wall-breaking "older" Doug Kenney — even shows up to mock the film's thankless casting task. Taking in uninteresting re-creations of well-known hits, and the occasional wink-wink "it's a biopic, folks" self-referencing, this film's title tends to come to mind.
The same reaction applies to the women in Kenney's life, too: an early, frustrated wife (Camille Guaty), and a later, frustrated girlfriend (Emmy Rossum). Neither make much of an impression. But perhaps they weren't supposed to in a movie about the '70s as one long, un-PC, male-identified dirty joke, with Kenney as its brilliant, troubled provocateur-king.
‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Streaming on Netflix