The term “National Lampoon” has changed drastically what it means to people over the years. An ever shifting, morphing, globulous ball of comedy, what it was, what it became and what it is now are so vastly different from each other. Yet, in each incarnation (save for it’s current state) it was the sculptor, not the clay, of humor on a national level, shaping the scene of comedy and birthing comedic legends such as Jim Belushi, Harold Ramis, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray. A Futile and Stupid Gesture takes viewers on a truncated but poignant and entertaining ride through the birth of the National Lampoon. A tale of friends with aspirations, the pains of success, and the pressures and pleasures of it all.
The core of A Futile and Stupid Gesture is the relationship of Doug Kenney (played by Will Forte, as main Doug and Martin Mull as old narrator Doug) and Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) with a focus on Doug Kenney. For those that do not know, and something that I love about the birth of the National Lampoon, is that it’s crass, anti-culture, over-the-top irreverent content was birthed from Harvard University – a place whose name alone invokes images of stuffed shirts filled with pompus braggadocio stoic self importance.
The Harvard Lampoon rag, founded in 1876 by the rag-tag group of Ralph Wormeley Curtis, Edward Sandford Martin, Edmund March Wheelwright, and Arthur Murray Sherwood set forth a prescedant for absurdist humor that has lasted to this very day. I doubt the founders knew the cultural implications their small publication would have on the very fabric of the comedy we have today.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is very well shot with clever staging and editing adding an added level of entertainment to what is already an intersting tale. Seeing the formation of the friendship between Doug and Henry at Harvard leads into the formation of the struggling National Lampoon magazine and its blossoming into the magazine, radio, stage and eventual movie jugernaught that it became.
I rather enjoyed the casting. Using todays up-and-comers in place of the then up-and-comers just felt right, even though they are not always great visual representations of who they are playing (which the movie actually stops and points out).
If you do not know Doug Kenney’s story, I do not want to spoil it for you. Sufficient to say though, comedy and tragedy go hand in hand, and sometimes in the face of the most dour and stressful of situations, something as simple as a futile and stupid gesture can make all the difference.
Early National Lampoon films are cherished by millions the world over. We Total Geeks even took the time to wax nostalgic on National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. While Doug was only involved in the creation of the smash comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House and (eventually) beloved classic Caddyshack, he brought together the group of talent at National Lampoon that launched a number of careers. From Chevy Chase who went on to star in the Vacation series, Jim Belushi in Blues Brothers, and not to mention talent like John Hughes that created a string of influential teen movies that I know influenced a lot of my childhood (Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, etc etc).
Since Netflix’s movie A Futile and Stupid Gesture is more of a stylized gloss-over of the events, I highly recommend checking out the amazing documentary Drunk Stoned Briliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. I highly suggest learning what the glory days of the National Lampoon were and look not at the tripe it has become; the knock-off wannabe American Pie style flicks that copy everything from the gross-out gags to the stupid font on the front of the box (thogh admittedly, I do like Van Wilder).
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