“A Futile and Stupid Gesture” is a cheesy, slapdash, semi-tongue-in-cheek biopic that purports to be about a lot of things — the creation of The National Lampoon, the weirdly haunted soul of its co-founder, Douglas C. Kenney, the rise of comedy in America in the 1970s. But the only aspect of it that I found I could focus on with even a modicum of interest was Will Forte’s sideburns.
Forte has been made up to look like Doug Kenney, a charismatically screwy hippie materialist WASP bad boy, the way he might have if this were a 10th-grade play. He wears a wig of stringy long hair that never, ever looks like anything but a wig, and he sports the sideburns of the era — long and shaggy, more beef jerky than mutton-chop. But these, too, are transparently fake, and all I could think was: Isn’t this supposed to be, like, a movie? Couldn’t Forte have spent a few weeks growing out his sideburns so that the make-up person didn’t have to glue two pieces of shag carpeting onto his face?
I know, I know: There probably wasn’t the budget for it. (I don’t mean a budget for sideburn-growing; I mean a budget that would allow the filmmakers the luxury of time to shoot in continuity.) But when you watch “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” a Netflix release (it’s available starting Friday, Jan. 26) that premiered yesterday at Sundance, you’re confronted, head-on, with the quintessence of the Netflix-original-film aesthetic, and it is not a pretty sight.
The lighting is flat and plain and milky-drab. The scenes lurch and stumble by, slammed together in the editing room with a kind of awkward utilitarian indifference. And given that this is a true story of mass media, pop culture, and a handful of madcap nihilistic visionaries who more than a few viewers already know a lot about, the amateur-hour inauthenticity of it all is nearly too much to bear.
In “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” characters like Chevy Chase and John Belushi and Bill Murray keep showing up, and each time we have to do a double take, because what we see are actors who look nothing like them, in obvious wigs, barely trying to impersonate them. At one point the film’s narrator, Martin Mull, in what’s supposed to be a cheeky meta way, acknowledges that the actors playing Belushi, etc., don’t look at all like their real-life counterparts. We blink away the disbelief as we realize the film is intentionally trying to palm off its ineptitude as “style.”
I should add that the 74-year-old Mull portrays the elderly Doug Kenney — a bizarre conceit, given that Kenney died, in 1980, at the age of 33, after falling off a cliff in Hawaii, in what was most likely a suicide. Theoretically, the idea of his older self telling his own story might have worked, if we didn’t feel like it was just another half-baked thing the movie was throwing against the wall.
I say none of this with any vengeful glee, since David Wain, the director of “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” is an artist of comedy I have long admired. The first film he directed (alongside his co-creator, Michael Showalter) was “Wet Hot American Summer” (2001), the ’80s-summer-camp-schlock sendup that’s now rightfully regarded as a delectable classic of pinpoint absurdist satire. In the years since, he has crafted some reasonably sharp comedies, like “Role Models” (2008) and “Wanderlust” (2012), in addition to his more adventurous TV work. Wain grew up in middle-class Ohio, just like Kenney, and the notion of a Doug Kenney biopic sounded like a perfect fit for him. The time has more than come for a dramatic feature that takes stock of the comedy revolution of the ’70s — one that, I would argue, changed the soul of America. (The single most influential movie of the past 40 years? Without question, “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” A project spearheaded by Doug Kenney.)
But Wain made a terrible mistake when he decided to turn Kenney’s story into a goof, a sketch, a riff of threadbare mockery, instead of treating it as a relatively straight movie with laughs. If he had done that, it might have been hilarious, though in an acidly downbeat and far-reaching way.
Will Forte’s Doug is just a quizzical lightweight who takes passive advantage of everyone around him. Forte, in that wig, looks enough like the real Doug Kenney, who was strikingly handsome for a magazine guy, and he captures the compulsive joking that was Kenney’s neurotic way of detaching himself from any situation. But what Forte and the movie completely whiff on is the aggression beneath the attitude. Doug Kenney was an extremely hostile writer; that’s why he, along with his National Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard, created a magazine that operated in a kind of blasphemous attack mode. They were misanthropes, tossing cherry bombs at the establishment and shoveling dirt onto the last straggling good vibes of the counterculture. But little of this comes across. Forte’s Doug is just an acerbic putz with deadline issues. He is, in a word, harmless.
“A Futile and Stupid Gesture” was adapted from Josh Karp’s 2006 book of the same name, but I suspect that the film was even more inspired by Douglas Tirola’s brilliant documentary “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of The National Lampoon,” which premiered at Sundance in 2015. That film did capture an era, and at its center was a haunting portrait of Kenney as a warped joker and drug casualty who didn’t believe in his own gift.
Trying to restage that story, Wain, working from a script by John Aboud and Michael Colton, skitters through the formative days of the Lampoon, through Kenney’s spiky camaraderie with Henry Beard (played by Domhnall Gleason as a kind of preppie Oscar Wilde), his late-night workaholic frenzies that give way to flakiness and womanizing, his growing alienation from the empire he’d created, and, finally, his entrée into Hollywood, where he helps to line up a team to make “Animal House” and then “Caddyshack.”
There are stray moments that point to what the movie might have been, like Thomas Lennon’s performance as Michael O’Donoghue, the kamikaze dandy who did much to invent the Lampoon attitude. After Kenney has cashed in and split from the magazine, we see his simmering jealousy and resentment when a number of his former colleagues go on to create “Saturday Night Live” (which was basically “The National Lampoon TV Hour”). But at a cast party, the show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, offers Kenney the opportunity to come onboard, and Doug is too proud to take him up on it. This represents a level of masochistic narcissism the film doesn’t come close to portraying with any insight. It’s just another thing that happens.
“A Futile and Stupid Gesture” turns into the story of an implosive yuppie brat who became outrageously successful but hated himself for not being more successful, and buried that feeling in mountains of cocaine, which wound up destroying him. That’s kind of the way it happened, and there’s no denying that Doug Kenney’s story resonates in our era; he laughed at his own life more than he lived it, to the point that he treated his death as a punchline. “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” makes you want to see a movie about all that, just not one so innocuously unconvincing.