A child of negligent and unloving parents can travel one of two diverging roads. He can either wallow in misery his entire life, each day more crushing and cruel than the last. Or he can become the man who will change comedy forever. Fortunately, this is the path Douglas Kenney chose to follow, and the world of satire and absurdity has never been the same since.
The Netflix movie “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” is not like the typical biopic. Detailing Doug Kenney’s (Will Forte) victories, as well as his trials and tribulations, as co-founder of the humor magazine National Lampoon and writer of one of the most profitable movies of all time, the film maintains a brisk pace, delivering laugh after laugh. It also makes clear, though, that even the funniest man alive must face moments of utter loneliness and despair. Thus, at its core, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” offers a glimpse into the mind of a comedic yet suffering genius, whose inability to connect with the people who loved him would ultimately lead to his downfall.
However, what truly separates this film from others of its genre is the extremity of its self-awareness. The movie begins with a snippet of an interview with “Modern Doug” (Martin Mull), even though Kenney died in 1980, so by all accounts this character should not even exist. Yet Modern Doug refuses to acknowledge this basic fact, making his voice heard throughout the movie as both an on- and off-screen narrator, and at times even going so far as to interact with the other characters. Sometimes, the meta nature of the film verges on societal critique. For example, when the original National Lampoon writers are introduced to the audience, a black couple angrily questions why all of the writers were white, to which Modern Doug replies, “If it makes you feel better, we also had very few Jews.” Many recent movies that take place in mid-20th-century United States depict the blatant and rampant discrimination that was characteristic of the time, but very few address it so directly. The extent to which “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” strives to be self-referential deserves absolute respect and proves just how much time and effort were involved in its creation.
Also noteworthy is the incredibly vibrant color scheme. Everything from the sets to the costumes is bathed in bright hues that appeal to the eye and draw the audience in. Additionally, the overall design perfectly captures the carefree atmosphere of the ’70s, offering viewers a refreshing and much-needed respite from the pervasive gloom and doom of the current era. The film’s visually stimulating style pairs well with its hilarity, and not a single camera shot or line of dialogue goes to waste.
Sadly, as with many of Hollywood’s greatest, hopelessness struck Kenney like a bolt of lightning and threw him hurtling from the sky. Abandoned by both his wife (Camille Guaty) and Lampoon partner (Domhnall Gleeson), Kenney could find happiness solely in his work, desperate to become rich and famous, just to prove to his parents that his life had value. Yet, after doing so, he only grew more miserable. As punishment for the pressure he subjected himself to, Kenney squandered his money on cocaine, developing an addiction that slowly began to replace work as his escape from reality. And sadly, in 1980, Kenney’s life came to an end when he fell off the 35-foot Hanapepe Lookout in Kauai, Hawaii. However, despite his tragic death, Doug’s friends and family honored him with amusement, namely the futile and stupid gesture of turning his funeral into a food fight. In this way, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” beautifully conveys that it is not what we do while we are alive, but what our loved ones do after we die, that defines us and gives our lives meaning.