A Futile and Stupid Gesture

Year: 2018
Production Co: Artists First
Director: David Wain
Writer: Michael Colton/John Aboud/Josh Karp
Cast: Will Forte, Domhnall Gleeson, David Krumholtz, Thomas Lennon, Matt Lucas, Ed Helms, Seth Green, Joel McHale, Emmy Rossum, Finn Wittrock

After watching Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile I watched the limited docuseries by the same director about the life and times of Ted Bundy. With this story I did it the other way around. As an Aussie I'd never been influenced by or even seen a copy of National Lampoon, but (as the makers of the 2015 documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon made a case for), screen comedy on a global basis in the 1980s that we all loved had its roots in the scrappy satirical magazine.

As that film said, and A Futile and Stupid Gesture seems to agree with, the magazine formerly known as The Harvard Lampoon begat Saturday Night Live, which begat talents from Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner on down, and made movie comedy what it was then and continues to this day.

And it all came from the minds of Doug Kenney (Will Forte), a buffoon who somehow gets into Harvard but is far less interested in his studies than the constant party of one of the exclusive clubs he ends up in, and his creative soulmate in Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson, who I had trouble placing and soon decided was Ezra Miller).

Instead of going on with their stuffy degrees, Kenney convinces Beard to quit college and take the comedy magazine on campus, The Harvard Lampoon, out of house and make it a legitimate business that suits both their comedy sensibilities.

So they duly visit every publisher in New York until they find one willing to take the gamble, hire a group of misfit writers and artists, and somehow build it up to be the highest selling comedy magazine in America, full of profanity, political satire and schoolboy humour. Some of the outrageous goings-on in the office are probably apocryphal, but they make great comedy.

Beard and Kenney complement each other's styles, Beard more administrative and business focused, Kenney having no interest except being funny. But as history shows he was suffering as well, the grind of work and maybe the strictures of living in the real world too much for him, causing a descent into excess and abuse. At the peak of the magazine's popularity he decamps for months to get away from things, leaving Beard and his colleagues scrambling in his wake. And of course, he checked out again later with tragic finality.

In later years the various ventures under the magazine's banner (radio broadcasts, stage shows, etc) introduced the world to some of the comic talent who'd come to dominate the genre, and it's great fun seeing people from real life depicted like Bill Murray, Chevy Chase (with whom Joel McHale does a great job despite looking little like the real Chase), Christopher Guest, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, John Landis, John Belushi, Ivan Reitman, Tim Matheson and Rodney Dangerfield.

The script by Michael Colton and John Aboud, adapted from Josh Karp's book, takes in some of the pivotal moments not just in Kenney's life but screen comedy like the filming of and notorious press conference for Caddyshack, Kenney's final holiday to Hawai'i with Chevy, some of the infamous cover art you've probably seen and more, and they're encompassed by a cohesive story that feels very much like the definitive account.

And in keeping with the creative ethos of National Lampoon itself, there's a fourth wall break device of an older, wisened Doug Kenney narrating and commenting on his life direct to the audience, a man the world obviously never got to meet. During Kenney's funeral, which descends into a food fight inspired by the immortal scene in Animal House, both the younger and older Kenney are standing by outside discussing their presence in the story, to which the younger one shrugs and says 'It's a device'.

If you're a student of the history behind the scenes of cinema you'll feel a bit smarter for having seen it even though it's a subjective account on the part of the writers.

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