The life of National Lampoon creator Douglas Kenney is explored in uneven biopic

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There was a spirit of anarchy that ran through the life of comic genius Douglas Kenney that is present in “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” David Wain’s unorthodox biopic about the National Lampoon creator. Wain’s film, now streaming on Netflix, tells Kenney’s story and tries to nail down what made him tick, with somewhat mixed results.

Part of the problem is Will Forte’s hollow performance as Kenney, who grew up a “middle class, Midwestern dork” in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Forte, himself a daring comic rebel in the guise of a buttoned-up straight man, plays Kenney as a restless creative who battled personal demons by throwing himself into his work, but he struggles to allow viewers to see inside his head. (Forte is also 14 years older than Kenney was when he died.)

The film’s philosophy is much like Kenney’s: everything’s a goof, nothing matters, so shut up and laugh. Except there was more going on beneath the surface.

Wain’s irreverent approach at least honors the vision of National Lampoon, the 1970s comedy factory that gave rise to the careers of Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Bill Murray (to name a few), with fourth-wall breaking cutaways that bolster the film’s loony tunes tone. The characterizations of those stars are scattered at best; Joel McHale has fun sending up his former “Community” costar Chase, but like many aspects of the movie, his performance feels like an inside joke.

At the heart of the film is Kenney’s relationship with National Lampoon co-creator Henry Beard, played by Domhnall Gleeson in a bad ’70s wig. Kenney and Beard are friends and business partners who experience the ups and downs of their creative partnership, but like many things in “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” their relationship feels like a glossy version of the truth. Kenney was troubled, but gave the world a lot to laugh about, and the same can be said for the movie about his life.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’

GRADE: C+

Not rated: Language, drug use and nudity

Running time: 101 minutes

Now streaming on Netflix

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