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Film / A Futile and Stupid Gesture

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These last few days are among the happiest I've ever ignored.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is a 2018 Netflix original biographical comedy/drama based on Josh Karp's book A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever.

The movie stars Will Forte as Doug Kenney, one of the co-founders of National Lampoon, and follows him from the end of college through all his entertainment endeavors until his eventual death in 1980. Taking a look behind Kenney's productions such as Animal House and Caddyshack, the film also features Domhnall Gleeson as Kenney's lifelong friend and fellow National Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard, and features supporting roles from Joel McHale, John Gemberling, and Rick Glassman as Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Harold Ramis, respectively, among other influential comedic figures throughout Kenney's life. The film was directed by David Wain and features a number of supporting performances from his fellow The State alumni.


A Futile and Stupid Gesture features examples of the following tropes:

  • A Minor Kidroduction: The movie's opening scene takes place in 1958 with Doug and his parents attending his older brother's funeral.
  • Actor Allusion: Joel McHale plays Chevy Chase, his co-star from Community.
  • Adapted Out: As is lampshaded by the movie itself, several people instrumental to the creation of the magazine were adapted out, most notably the third co-founder Robert Hoffman, who eventually left to attend Harvard Business School.
  • Addled Addict: Doug begins abusing drugs and alcohol due to the stress of running the magazine, but it doesn't get really bad until he starts producing movies and gets addicted to cocaine.
  • Answer Cut: During his sabbatical, Doug mentions that he's sure Henry is doing fine running the magazine without him. Cut to the Lampoon offices where someone has sent dynamite to O'Donnaughe, and Henry is trying to get him to put it down. This incident actually happened, back in April of 1972.
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  • Arc Symbol: Kenney's tennis racket becomes one of these. Tennis in general, really, as Kenney's downward spiral was heavily drug-induced, and their cocaine was transported inside tennis balls.
  • Artistic License – History: Frequently acknowledged. At one point during the movie, a bunch of things from real life that were left out of the movie scroll over the screen.
    • The movie treats Rodney Dangerfield during the production of Caddyshack as awkward and incapable of leading the film. In reality, Dangerfield was merely a supporting character, and his ad libbing was so hilarious that the crew had to fight the urge to laugh during his scenes to avoid ruining the take. His material was so funny that the movie was recut to make him the protagonist rather than Michael O'Keefe's.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Doug has died prematurely, but his parents finally appreciate what he'd done with his life, and all of Doug's friends have a food fight in his honor.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Martin Mull plays an older Doug Kenney and directly talks to the audience when describing events that happened throughout his life. After Kenney's death, Will Forte's younger version of the character can talk to Mull's, the latter revealing that he's simply an idealized depiction of Kenney had he not died so premature.
  • Buxom Is Better: Kenney and Beard nickname their secretary "Mary Marshmallow." Kenney begins sleeping with her soon after.
  • Condescending Compassion: Lorne Michaels offers Doug a writing job on Saturday Night Live, a show featuring actors that he hired away from National Lampoon's very successful radio show.
  • Creator Backlash: In-universe. Doug begins to resent Caddyshack after Airplane! becomes a hit in 1980. Its mixed reception upon release only makes things worse.
  • Driven to Suicide: Ultimately how Doug Kenney's death ends up portrayed as, though in real life this is questionable.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: see under Artistic License – History, above.
  • Heroic BSoD: Kenney goes through one when the pressures of running National Lampoon begin to pile up. He ends up taking an extended leave on absence, piling all his responsibilities on top of Henry's.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Doug Kenney and Henry Beard. When Beard goes on to live a full life on his own, Kenney doesn't last very long without him.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels is depicted as an arrogant Slimeball whose success only came about because he stole the cast of National Lampoon Radio Hour and several of the magazine's writers for the show.
  • Hurricane of Puns: Doug and Henry exchange several Tolkien-related puns at a party for the release of Bored of the Rings.
  • Informed Attractiveness: Narrator Doug tells us several times that his first wife Alexandra is beautiful and out of his league. She's played by the very attractive Camille Guaty, but since Kenney is played by Will Forte, it's not quite as big a gap between them as it might have been between the real Kenney and Alexandra.
  • Mythology Gag: Mark Metcalf plays a character who quotes the best known line of his character from Animal House.
  • Poke the Poodle: After watching Doug tear up Matty Simmons's office, Henry knocks a single plaque off the wall.
  • Running Gag: Doug always introduces himself as "Doug Kenney, Chagrin Falls, Ohio." in his very last scene, he's asked where he comes from, and he says "Chagrin Falls, Ohio" with a confused expression, as if he didn't realize that he'd stopped making the joke.
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Kenney becomes one after starting National Lampoon. When his wife finds out, she leaves.
  • Technician vs. Performer: Henry is the technician to Doug's performer. While Doug focuses on the creative side of National Lampoon, Henry is more focused on the day to day operations. This leads to a breakdown between the two, as they both agreed to leave when things stopped being fun, and the stress of running the magazine essentially by himself causes Henry to quit the entire operation.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Once Henry Beard leaves, Doug starts hanging out with Chevy Chase more, who is depicted as being more indulgent of Doug's self destructive tendencies and doesn't try to reign him in.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Kenney spent his entire adult life trying to gain the approval of his father Daniel, who never showed the smallest bit of respect, no matter how successfull his son got. In Daniel's eyes, Doug could never live up to his dead older brother, especially not with a career in comedy. It's not until Doug himself dies that Daniel wisens up.
  • Why Didn't I Think of That?: Doug feels that the National Lampoon staff should've been the ones to make a film like Airplane!, as the film's tone is very similar to the magazine.