The best thing about A Stupid and Futile Gesture is that you don’t have to buy a ticket to see it. It makes sense that the recent Sundance selection ended up on a streaming service like Netflix: the thing barely qualifies as any kind of cinematic experience. It’s the kind of biopic that has no angle, more willing to ape the technical conventions of Scorsese without any of his specificity. All of this adds up to a dramatically inert portrait of Gesture’s subject, and a film equal parts boring and unfunny and confused.
Gesture, the product of hit-or-miss director David Wain, centers on funnyman Doug Kenney (Will Forte and Martin Mull) and the construction of the National Lampoon magazine, as well as his involvement with Animal House and Caddyshack. Along the way he loses friends, learns nothing, and overcomes no major obstacles on his path to uninteresting success. The film splits Kenney in two—Forte plays the upstart comedian through to his death in 1980, while Mull plays a fictionalized version of an older, more self-aware Kenney. This device allows the film to make cracks at its historical accuracy and its failings as yet another all-white biopic, but beyond that it lends nothing substantial to Kenney’s arc, feels fundamentally insensitive, and serves to muddle any sort of historical account Gesture could have offered. It also doesn’t help that Mull brings so much more gravity to an entirely fictionalized interpretation of Kenney than Forte can to the real—or at least, more real—man. Forte has made a steady career out of strange, oftentimes hilariously off-putting comedic performances, and to see him completely flounder here is discouraging. Like everything else in Gesture, Forte has no idea whether to portray the character comedically or dramatically. Without grounding Kenney in any kind of honesty, the film has no means of seriously interrogating his toxic masculinity, depression, and addictions—all of the things the film is ostensibly trying to grapple with.
The second-best thing about Gesture is that, because it’s so overwritten, it’s incredibly easy to follow and I could play Wordscapes while glancing at the film occasionally. There is something so incompetent about Gesture’s plotting, which recreates every important event it can think of without any idea of how to fit those events into a cohesive whole. Once the Lampoon is built, the second half of the film fails to capture any narrative momentum as Kenney’s film career takes off. Equally dispiriting is the loss of Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard (Domnhall Gleeson), the only character in the film who ever seems to ground Forte. Gleeson is an excellent character actor, arguably the best amidst a cast of comedians, and deserves far better material than he’s given here. He also does enough with Beard to make him a lot more empathetic and understandable than Kenney. If Gesture had honed in primarily on the development of the Lampoon, it would be a much stronger film.
Of all the movies that try to simultaneously celebrate and critique unimpressive, toxic white men, Gesture comes off as particularly smug in its depiction of Kenney. There are hundreds of bad biopics about white dudes, but this one in particular feels so detached from the political and cultural climate of 2018 that everything it presents as “just a joke” or a “product of the times” lands with a thud. Specificity is the key to any character study, but Gesture fires off so many narrative tricks and fourth-wall breaking humor that definition goes completely out the window. As a result, there is no clear mission to the film. There’s no definitive reason as to why it was made at all.
I was surprised at just how bad Gesture ended up being. Gesture is boring, and two hours long, and bad. Within Netflix’s bottomless pit of original content, there are far better films to waste your time on, and Netflix movies are already pretty terrible. Watch Okja! Okja is a really good under-the-radar Netflix film from 2017, and it will make you cry and feel things. A Stupid and Futile Gesture will not.
CAMERON FAIRCHILD | Binge Watcher | KXSU Arts Reporter