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TV and Movies

'A Futile and Stupid Gesture' makes (up) comedy history

Packed with fictional versions of icons like Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, this anarchic Netflix biopic is more than "Saturday Night Live: The Early Years".

Sundance

"A Futile and Stupid Gesture" doesn't pretend to be a completely accurate history of "National Lampoon" and "Saturday Night Live". In fact, the film goes so far as to scroll a lengthy list of its own factual inaccuracies across the screen at lightning pace.

This barely-readable list of made-up stuff works as a chucklesome visual gag. But it works even better when you remember this is a Netflix movie -- so if you want, you can simply pause the film and peruse the list at your leisure (it's at one hour and seven minutes in, if you're interested).

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this week and now streaming on Netflix, "A Futile and Stupid Gesture" follows the life story of Doug Kenney. Kenney co-founded "National Lampoon" magazine in 1970 and wrote "Animal House" and "Caddyshack". He was therefore a pivotal figure in the late-70s/early-80s American comedy scene that gave birth to "Saturday Night Live" and the early careers of comic icons like Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and John Belushi.

Fictional recreations of those big names are arguably the selling point of the whole enterprise, as a host of recognisable and sort-of recognisable comic actors of today play the comedy heroes of yesteryear -- with, it must be said, varying degrees of success. But there's more to "Futile and Stupid Gesture" than a line-up of celebrity impressions.

Will Forte plays Kenney with a winning combination of quick-fire silliness and increasing torment under the pressure of success. We meet Kenney as a small-town outsider at Harvard, where he's ringleader of a troupe of oddballs and misfits dedicated to cracking jokes and chasing a good time. That's a running theme as Kenney moves from college humor to best-selling magazine to hit movie, with the ever-shifting gang of comic talents in Kenney's orbit torn between comedy and debauchery. Until, perhaps inevitably, the balance tips from comedy success to conspicuous excess.

Kenney's best friend at Harvard is the deadpan Henry Beard. Playing Henry with a succession of sharp suits, an ever-present pipe and his signature ginger locks died a near-unrecognisable jet black, Domhnall Gleeson coolly steals every scene he's in. So much so that it's a shame when Henry tires of his friend's crap and fades into the background to be replaced by the more familiar names of Kenney's TV and movie years. 

For my money, none of the celeb impersonations are as engaging as Gleeson's performance as a guy most people won't have heard of. As well as Gleeson, across the board it's the actors playing the lesser-known real-life figures who stand out. Particularly good are the anarchic crew of Natasha Lyonne as Ann Beatts, Thomas Lennon as Michael O'Donoghue and Neil Casey as Brian McConnachie.

Joel McHale's casting as Chevy Chase is inspired, given their history as co-stars on the troubled sitcom "Community", but his impersonation is a bit too subtle. Chase is portrayed as being the closest to Kenney in his darker times, but at the same time doesn't come off very well in terms of enabling his friend's demons. 

Jon Daly has a fun monologue as Bill Murray, but again his impression isn't quite spot-on enough. As for the other stunt casting, like Seth Green as Christopher Guest or Bevers out of "Broad City" as John Belushi, they simply don't have enough screen time to convince. Probably the most accurate is Erv Dahl as Rodney Dangerfield, but he's an actual Rodney Dangerfield impersonator so that probably shouldn't count. 

Celebrity impressions aside, this is a compelling tale of success gone sour in suitably dayglo period colors. Forte gives Kenney both a seductive comic energy and a weight of melancholy pathos, even under an enormously distracting wig.

The film doesn't shy away from acknowledging how shabbily Kenney treated the people who loved him, although it's pretty glib about the sexist and racist attitudes of the time. But it does capture something of the anarchic spirit and manic energy of that explosive flashpoint in American comedy.

And even if it does make a bunch of stuff up, you can hit pause to save yourself a trip to Wikipedia.