Netflix had quite a run with its original films in 2017. Now they are hoping to do the same in 2018 with this biopic of one of the co-founders of National Lampoon, Doug Kenney. It also features an impressive cast playing legendary comedy icons. Being unfamiliar with this past, it should serve as an important history lesson.
Synopsis: In the 1970s and ’80s, National Lampoon’s success and influence creates a new media empire overseen in part by the brilliant and troubled Doug Kenney. (IMDB)
Starring: Will Forte, Domhnall Gleeson, and Martin Mull
Writers: John Aboud and Michael Colton
Director: David Wain
Running Time: 101mins
How else would a biopic about one of the co-founders of National Lampoon, Doug Kenney (Forte), play as other than as a comedy? Based on the book by Josh Karp, the story did take some liberties with its storytelling, even offering a running scroll of the liberties it took in trying to make Kenney’s story into a more entertaining film. The story followed Kenney from his days at Harvard where he met Henry Beard (Gleeson), who would be the other co-founder of National Lampoon, to his tragic death.
Kenney and Beard were two men trying to find their place in the world. Each came to Harvard from different backgrounds with Beard fitting the mould a little more than Kenney who barely got in. After graduating, Beard had a little more going on but what they both had in common was their friendship and comedy. From there, Kenney convinced Beard to join him with his dream of starting a national humor magazine which would become National Lampoon.
Kenney and Beard were great to watch together as they each came from relative obscurity to create a successful magazine which quickly became more. It also gave a start to several legendary names in comedy like Chevy Chase (Joel McHale), Bill Murray (Jon Daly), and Christopher Guest (Seth Green) just to name a few and also spawned some of the biggest comedic films of all time such as Animal House and Caddyshack. Seeing everything come together, including going behind the scenes of Animal House and Caddyshack, was fun and hilarious to watch as National Lampoon served as a major disruptor during the 70s and 80s in the way it lampooned society as a whole (of course older viewers will probably get the references a little more than younger viewers).
As much as there were highs, there were a few lows in Kenney’s life. If there were any negatives here, it would be its few dramatic moments. The script still managed to find a decent balance between comedy and drama, favoring the former, but the dramatic moments weren’t as impactful as they could’ve been as it glossed over the trauma at the root of Kenney’s inner demons. He may have been somewhat successful but he was never satisfied, resenting his peers’ success while burying himself in his work and various drugs in order to further his own success, often coming at the expense of his relationships. Another negative would be the focus on Beard. He was an interesting character who didn’t have much of an arc of his own and was mostly just a straight man to Kenney.
The best part of the film was the performances of Forte and Gleeson and their excellent chemistry as Kenney and Beard. Forte was terrific as Kenney, using his patented crazy personality to create a compelling character that avoided caricature while doing a decent job at selling his more dramatic moments. Gleeson’s role was a departure for him, hiding behind long hair and glasses, but he added some humanity to Beard and helped to fill the gaps with his character in the script through his performance. Without giving anything away, some may not get Mull’s meta narrator, however, he had some funny one-liners.
Overall, this was an excellent comedic biopic that fittingly subverted the genre in the same way that Kenney and National Lampoon first subverted comedy thanks to a sharp script and great performances, especially by Will Forte and Domhnall Gleeson.
*A Futile and Simple Gesture will be released on Netflix tomorrow*