A Futile and Stupid Gesture, based on the biography of National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney (from the book of the same name), presents a compressed (for time) story of a troubled man who gets his joy entirely from giving joy to others.
The film also shows how Doug’s inability to bring himself joy haunts him throughout his life, as his eye for spotting talent and crafting pitches launches careers for those around him, while he feels that no amount of success will ever be enough.
A Harvard grad at the film’s opening, Doug (Will Forte) is desperate to hold onto the good times of his mid-‘60s scholarship at any cost. So much so, that when pressed by his parents (Annette O’Toole and Harry Groener) about his plans for law school, Doug declares extemporaneously that he’s going to start his own magazine rather than join the office drones.
His soon-to-be publishing partner Harry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) responds with a thoughtful, “tempting,” and retorts that publishers do, in fact, themselves need desks. This kind of dynamic—where Doug acts first, and figures out the plan on his way, bringing more thoughtful people along with him—is one he repeats with almost every talented person that A Futile and Stupid Gesture shows him meeting.
The film handles the different aspects of Doug’s personality by presenting three different Dougs to the audience: young Doug, dealing with his older brother’s death (or not dealing with it, as we watch him do), 1970s Doug (Forte), self-destructive and brilliant as anyone could recognize, and modern Doug (Martin Mull), narrating at points and providing an example of what Doug would look like if he were able to get his collective shit together.
Modern Doug’s moments come off more as Shakespearean asides to the audience, to address or detail how things happened or didn’t exactly happen the way they were being presented. An entire scene is spent explaining apologetically how, because it was the early ‘70s, they didn’t hire any black people. “But in our defense, we also didn’t look for any funny Jews, either,” Doug offers as a deflection that immediately gets shot to hell once the likes of Gilda Radner and Harold Ramis show up in the story.
The film feels disjointed in its telling, likely a product of the fuzzy memories from everyone who was actually there and is still alive, and the massive amounts of drugs that floated around. A Futile and Stupid Gesture mostly plays it for laughs, but there are metric tons of drugs in this movie, and I don’t for a second believe they weren’t actually there in the moment either.
Forte plays Doug well in these moments, as a man who thrives on the energy getting laughs provides, but feels he needs even more energy to keep getting those laughs. So, he turns to cocaine. A lot of cocaine. Herculean amounts of cocaine. The drug abuse loses Doug a friend in Harry, but gains him a drug buddy in Chevy Chase (Joel McHale, in a meta bit of casting that’s honestly brilliant). Chevy is clearly Doug’s closest friend in these darker moments, as Doug’s self-doubt and self-sabotage come to a head at the press screening for Caddyshack. Chevy and Doug’s girlfriend Kathryn (Emmy Rossum) try to get through to him about his need for help—help with the drugs, help with his deep psychological problems, help with his generally broken nature.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture takes a turn at this point for the sentimental, but it’s to the credit of the cast and mostly Gleeson, McHale and especially Forte, that the moment lands. That it’s then followed by a food fight is a detail Kenney himself would’ve probably liked.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture manages to find a through line in a man who, by its own telling, seemed almost allergic to the concept, living moment to moment looking for the next rush of joy that he found outside of himself.
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