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A FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE: A joke gone too far?

Many college students of the early ’70s grew up engaged with a magazine that was equivalent to Howard Stern’s radio show in its heyday: National Lampoon. The magazine was an extension of the college newsletter Harvard Lampoon, although Harvard would hardly own that claim. It was known for crass and inappropriate humor and for instigating lawsuits.

The Netflix original “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” stars Martin Mull/Will Forte as the creative force Doug Kenney, who — along with Henry Beard (played by Domhnall Gleeson) — created National Lampoon and spread their influence and brand of sophomoric humor on the nation.

If you are familiar with Kenney’s story, the casting of Martin Mull might leave you a bit perplexed. This is primarily due to Kenney’s death at age 33 in 1980, and Mull is 75 years old.

The first issue of National Lampoon was a complete train wreck and required a more appealing design while driving the humor. Most of the original people hired in the art department apparently weren’t hired for their talent so much as for who they knew.

But once they had a more appealing design (thanks to some judicious personnel cuts) the former college newsletter became the premier satirical literary pulp phenomenon of the ’70s. Between the pages was the type of humor that was too brazen for grade school teenagers and found its audience with young adults. Pages filled with bizarre content and nudity, coupled with “True Facts.” It was unlike anything else (including Mad Magazine) for its time.

Years later, the magazine morphed into a radio show, a live theatrical production, records, books and finally the big screen. The success of the magazine gave way to the radio program, the National Lampoon Radio Hour. From 1973-75 talents like Michael O’Donoghue, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Bill Murray and Chevy Chase were cutting their teeth on the microphone before making their leap to television on Saturday Night Live as part of the Not-Ready-for-Primetime Players.

National Lampoon had — for many fans — lost steam by 1975. This was largely due to Kenney and Baerd leaving the magazine after cashing in on a $7.5 million buyout. Kenney carried a large amount of resentment for SNL and saw revenge by creating the best comedy of all time “Animal House.” Few would know that Kenney would be the one to play the blind band leader in the film marching down a dead-end street in Eugene.

“A Futile and Stupid Gesture” could be best described as a mockumentary of a mockumentary. Mull’s fourth wall breaks provide some levity, and the casting seems to be far from well thought out. As Mull says to the audience, “I know. They don’t look anything like the people they portray, but what the hell?”

Joel McHale was a bit of a stretch as Chevy Chase, even if he did get the mannerisms down. And Natasha Lyonne was never in a truly scene-stealing moment. The rest of the actors (largely unknown) seem to get the basics down as their counterparts, but never with believability. That may be just a joke on the audience, as in “see, made ya look” type of humor.

The story shows the hardships of drug use, infidelity, divorce and success but never really dwells in the emotional context. Maybe the point is not to make a moral stance on those issues and let you be the judge. Or maybe it was all treated as a joke because Kenney never seemed to be that serious. Who’s to say? Obviously, you’ll need to work that one out for yourself.

The moral of the story — if there is one — would be to not to take life too seriously and to live your life for yourself and not others.

It ends with a stupid and futile gesture that, while it celebrates life through play, is equally sad. The movie never really hits its mark but is worth the viewing just for the nostalgia alone. There are many laugh-out-loud moments. And, just like the National Lampoon magazine, this movie is maybe a joke gone too far.

To reach Brian Fitz-Gerald email him at bfitz-gerald@rosebudmedia.com.

Domhnall Gleeson as Henry Beard.{ }(moviestillsdb.com)
Thomas Lennon as Michael O'Donoghue.{ }(moviestillsdb.com)