A Futile and Stupid Gesture: Netflix biopic on National Lampoon's Doug Kenney shows comedy is no laughing matter

Aashray Hariharan

Feb,08 2018 16:05:07 IST


Being a comedian is fun. You get to be funny and crack jokes and make everybody happy. People adore you, love follows you, success eats out of your hands. And all this while basically just being yourself!

Said nobody ever.

The sad clown is easily the most cliched yet hauntingly true caricature there exists. (With the possible exception of the overworked journalist) (But let's not digress) (While also sparing a thought for overworked journalists). There is a reason, however, why so many comedians hate themselves and their lives; why so many of them suffer from crippling loneliness and depression. And why so many of them end up killing themselves: Because comedy is absolutely no laughing matter.

Poster for Netflix’s A Futile and Stupid Gesture

Poster for Netflix’s A Futile and Stupid Gesture

Spare a thought for the ones tasked with making the rest of us laugh. Imagine the plight of a man trying to entertain a room full of strangers, people with whom he has nothing in common. Or, even worse, imagine she's a woman, and in the crowd are angry, misogynist men — men, basically. And s/he now has to keep their game face on every single minute, come joy, depression or heavy weather. They need to extract humour out of situations that may not necessarily lend themselves to humour; mock people and things that may not seem mockable; set aside all the self-loathing to put on a faux sunny disposition.

Still surprised why comedian Richard Lewis once admitted to hating himself "from the time he was in the womb"?

This problem is at the heart of Netflix’s A Futile and Stupid Gesture, a biopic on the all-too-brief life and all-too-successful times of Doug Kenney, the founder of the National Lampoon comedy empire. Kenney was the funniest and most successful guy you've never heard of. In the movie, he's described as the "man who changed comedy forever", and it's hard to disagree.

Kenney co-founded the National Lampoon magazine, ran it for about a decade, before branching out into radio and TV. He was also a published author of books and outstandingly funny essays. Later, he wrote Animal House, at the time the most successful comedy movie of all time, in 1978. Still unable to place him? He's the guy who delivered this immemorial line. He then wrote and directed Caddyshack. At the age of 33, at what was arguably the peak of his powers, he jumped off a cliff in Hawaii and gave it all up.

When you compress it into a nutshell like that, it does seem rather dramatic, a life lived fast and given up on fast. But as the author Nabokov wrote, there is space on a gravestone for the abridged version of a man's life, but detail is always welcome. And so we reach Netflix's take on the crazy genius of Kenney. It does a fine job of bringing the man to life. Pared down to the bare basics, it follows the quintessential 'rise of a meteoric genius, drug-fuelled hedonism, womanising, alcoholism, depression, fall from grace' template. Had it been this and nothing more, we'd have suggested you still watch it for the laughs, of which there are plenty. But thankfully, it goes beyond. It's got iconic moments from the shrine of National Lampoon. That famous cover? There. The one which just said "sexy cover issue"? Right up front. As are the High School Yearbook Parody, the genesis of Saturday Night Live, the making of Animal House, all the food fights, young Bill Murray — watching the movie is like taking a heritage walk through all the signboards that have come to define comedy as we know it today.

But then it goes even beyond. It serves as a commentary on the life and times of a comedian whose meteoric genius meant the bar was always set too high — so high that he himself failed trying to do better.

The film has a self-deprecating air to it throughout, enough for the narrator to turn directly to the camera and say “Does anybody even think Will Forte is 25 years old?” Forte, who plays Kenney in the film, does so with enough goofiness to pull off the initial segments. The humour is deadpan and straight-faced, the punchlines roll effortlessly, there is even the typical twinkle in his eye when he knows something good is coming up.

The problem, if we can call it that, is when things get darker, Forte is still stuck at goofy. There are times when you wish for a better actor, one who could have really sunk his teeth into the role and shone through the good parts and the bad. When Kenney is suffering from alcoholism and loneliness in the latter half of the movie, the scenes required a more nuanced hand. Forte is caught out of his depth here. Not that we are complaining. It's at worst a minor blip in what has been a fabulous ride.

It only highlights that there will come a time when the jokes will stop. But the laughs can never end. And that’s when the struggle really begins.

Updated Date: Feb 08, 2018 16:16 PM