At some point in the 21st century, “meta” became the go-to adjective for any work of pop culture with a sense of itself, whether it’s a TV show breaking the fourth wall or a movie literally stopping the action on screen to offer an insight or a song in which the artist comments about herself.
I don’t know what the next thing is after “meta,” but I do know “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” is that thing. This is quite possibly the most self-referential, inside-jokey, look-at-how-clever-we-are, off-the-charts Meta Movie I’ve ever seen.
Sometimes that’s pretty great. At other times, it detracts from the core story at hand: a biopic of Douglas Kenney, the influential and troubled comedic genius who co-founded the National Lampoon magazine, co-wrote the screenplay for “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” wrote and produced “Caddyshack” and had a hand in launching the careers of many if not most of the cast members of the first few seasons of “Saturday Night Live.”
Directed by David Wain from a screenplay by John Aboud and Michael Colton (adapted from the must-read book by Josh Karp), “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” stars Will Forte as Kenney — but it also stars Martin Mull as “Modern Doug,” i.e., a version/vision of what Kenney would have been like had he not died mysteriously in 1980 at the age of 33.
It’s Modern Doug who walks into flashback scenes and narrates the story while addressing the camera, and see what I mean about this movie being extra-meta?
As actors playing John Belushi, Christopher Guest, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, et al., join the story, Modern Doug says, “Yeah, so these actors don’t look exactly like the real people — but come on, you think I looked like Will Forte when I was 27? You think Will Forte looks 27?”
The meta stakes are raised with “National Lampoon’s Animal House” veterans Mark Metcalfe (who played Doug Neidermeyer) and Martha Smith (Barbara “Babs” Jansen) having small roles in this film that have nothing to do with the characters they played in the comedy classic.
And get this: Joel McHale, the star of “Community,” plays Chevy Chase (and does a dang good job of doing it), who of course co-starred on “Community” and famously clashed with just about everyone on “Community.”
Oh right. This is mainly the story of Doug Kenney, who grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio (how’s that for a National Lampoon-sounding name for a town?) and in the 1960s attended Harvard University, where he co-led the charge to dust off the Harvard Lampoon and turn it into something relevant and irreverent.
Kenney and his writing partner Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleason) took it to the next level in 1970 when they launched National Lampoon magazine, which went far beyond the boundaries of the light satire to be found in the likes of Mad Magazine or the naughty writings and cartoons in Playboy.
The Lampoon put out a cover with a picture of a dog with a gun to its head, and the caption, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.” A typical fake full-page ad showed a Volkswagen Beetle floating in the water, with the tag line: “If Ted Kennedy Drove a VW, He’d Be President Today.”
National Lampoon the magazine led to National Lampoon’s Radio Hour (starring Belushi, Radner, Guest and Harold Ramis, among others), a live National Lampoon tour, books — and movies with the Lampoon imprint, including of course “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” When Lorne Michaels was casting about for talent to appear on a weekly, late-night, satirical comedy/music show, he basically raided the Lampoon’s roster.
At one point the screen fills up with the names of contributors to the Lampoon, many of whom went on to great success — and then a black couple approaches Modern Doug, and the woman says, “So there were no funny black writers in the 1970s, and just one woman?” to which Modern Doug replies, “Oh, I’m sure they were out there, but we didn’t think to look. It was a different time. In our defense, we also had very few Jews.”
At that point I wished Modern Doug would take a walk and we could just stick with the story of Kenney’s remarkable talent, his uneasiness with success and his chagrin (if you will) over the fact his parents thought he was frittering his life away on juvenile humor, even when Doug attained great success.
Forte captures Kenney’s deadpan comedic insanity and his wry humor, but also conveys the sense of melancholy and emotional restlessness plaguing Doug. Director Wain and the production team do a fantastic job of re-creating the atmosphere on the sets of “Animal House” and “Caddyshack.”
Kenney grows increasingly dependent on drugs and falls into ever-deeper depression. He’s convinced “Caddyshack” will be a career-crushing debacle. The always-terrific Emmy Rossum plays Kathryn Walker, who was with Kenney for the last few years of his life and became a rare voice of support and reality in Doug’s world. (Chase also comes across as a loyal and genuinely caring friend.) Kathryn clearly loves Doug, and is heartbroken he can’t see in himself what she sees in him.
Doug Kenney died after falling from a cliff in Kauai, Hawaii. Some say he fell; others are sure he jumped. (Police ruled it an accident. The film sides with the argument he jumped.) Harold Ramis famously said, “Doug probably fell while he was looking for a place to jump.”
Exactly the kind of joke Douglas Kenney would have loved.
Netflix presents a film directed by David Wain and written by Michael Colton and John Aboud. No MPAA rating. Running time: 101 minutes. Premieres Friday on Netflix.