A new Netflix original takes massive liberties with the truth. They even joke about it mid-movie.
“A Futile and Stupid Gesture” recalls the rise of National Lampoon, the comedy magazine that inspired a generation of comedy superstars.
Chevy Chase. John Belushi. Harold Ramis. Gilda Radner. That’s just a partial list.
“Futile” shakes up history in a number of ways, large and small. The most profound? Having Martin Mull play the main character as an older man … even though the person in question died at 33.
What’s also fascinating is how “Futile” reveals comedy culture circa 2018. The movie may take some swings at those stiff conservatives, but right-of-center folks would be the heroes if the Lampoon narrative extended to modern times.
“Futile” introduces us to Doug Kenney and Henry Beard (Will Forte and Domhnall Gleeson), snarky Harvard students attempting to start a humor magazine from scratch.
The magazine business was brutal even in the analog age. Few thought their wacky brand of humor would sell to the masses. Oh, were those straight-laced naysayers wrong.
National Lampoon didn’t hit the zeitgeist. It crushed it, spawning a radio show, feature films and the rise of many of the era’s biggest talents. It also challenged Doug and Henry in ways they couldn’t predict.
Director David Wain (“Wet Hot American Summer,” “Role Models”) adopts a traditional biopic approach to the material.
Until he doesn’t.
We see a romance breakup via comic book-style panels, for example. Then it’s back to the narrative. That makes “Futile” engaging, no doubt, if a bit schizophrenic. Mull’s appearance, shattering the fourth wall, offers highs and lows.
His presence makes no sense given Kenney’s passing. It’s also Martin Mull being Martin Mull, and that’s never a negative. It’s still a shame to see Mull get woke. Like when he apologizes for the original Lampoon crew lacking a single person of color and only one prominent female writer.
That’s how it was. Apologizing for it now is sad. It also goes against the Lampoon mojo. Take no prisoners. Apologize for nothing. “Comedy has to be raw,” Forte’s Doug says.
Forte eventually wins us over as Doug, but he’s clearly miscast. The screenplay offers some solace. It’s filled with sharp quips revealing Doug’s fertile, sometimes abrasive mind. He could be a jerk and he cheated on everyone he loved … including his own magazine.
What about that magazine? Remember the faux ad saying Ted Kennedy would be president had he driven a VW? Buy this magazine or we’ll shoot this dog? Holocaust humor?
Edgy material, the kind today’s comics skate around or, in some cases, avoid completely if they depict Democrats in a poor light. A case in point:
Pretty lucky Joe Kennedy’s car broke down where he was supposed to give his speech. pic.twitter.com/IcoPCOpPLC
— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) January 31, 2018
The film also reminds us what rebellious comedy is up against today. Comics are held to the same standards as politicians when it comes to telling the “wrong” jokes. Stand-ups routinely apologize for gags that offend select audience members.
Some movies hire full-time staffers to make sure material isn’t offensive. It’s everything National Lampoon’s creators would despise.
Yet the film exists in a world where conservatives are the comedy curmudgeons. There’s even a bit where Doug and Chevy Chase (Joel McHale) are playing tennis and swearing with every thwack of the ball.
The comments are too crude to repeat here. The bit ends with one of the players saying, “Ronald Reagan!” It’s meant to be the ultimate curse.
…the film exists in a world where conservatives are the comedy curmudgeons
Kenney may be gone, but the National Lampoon brand may return. PalmStar Media bought the National Lampoon assets for just south of $12 million last year. Can the brand rise from the grave?
That might be even harder than the magazine’s birth, thanks to a PC culture run amok.
HiT or Miss: “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” isn’t the shining biopic the National Lampoon creators deserve. It’s still a heady reminder of what’s been lost in comedy since the madcap ’70s.