A Futile and Stupid Gesture

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
A Futile and Stupid Gesture Movie Poster Image
Comedy writer's success and sorrow; drugs, sex, cursing.
  • NR
  • 2018
  • 101 minutes

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age 18+
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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Creative people contribute so much value to society that they should be forgiven when they are jerks. "Always go with your worst instincts."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Doug Kenney is glib, bright, and obsessed with mocking politics, sex, society, pretentiousness, and all mainstream views of the middle-class world he hailed from. He's a heavy drinker, addicted to cocaine, a serial adulterer, disloyal, selfish, oblivious, and self-absorbed. He thinks of himself as superior to those too cautious or unimaginative to understand his vision and isn't shy about letting others know of his disdain. He's jealous and depressed when someone else's comic movie is a success.


People at a magazine physically fight over money and control. A radio bit describes a celebrity having needles stuck in his eyeballs. Angry about money, Doug and his partner trash their publisher's office. Doug takes a bite out of a wine glass to impress a girl. Doug beats a movie producer named Brad with a mechanical gopher. A suicide is suggested.


A National Lampoon writer proposes an article called "The Joys of Wife-tasting"; another, a Dr. Seuss story about the "sexual awakening of a young toucan." Mention of a depiction of Minnie Mouse displaying her pasty-covered breasts. The writers are aware that sex sells magazines and they exploit that knowledge repeatedly. The writers are flippant on a full range of subjects normally treated with more seriousness. In one instance, a guy trying to be funny invites a friend to go to a bar and "watch sailors hit on runaway teens." The movie displays graphic photographs of women's breasts and men's and women's rear ends. Masturbation discussed.


"F--k," "s--t," "t-ts," "balls," "d--k," "c--k," "blow job," "ass," "hand job," "twat," "bush," and "suck."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Boxes and jars full of cocaine. People snort white powder and use other drugs, including LSD. Characters smoke tobacco and marijuana. Many characters drink large amounts of alcohol. It's suggested that Kenney may have been high when he died and that if he committed suicide it was partly related to an inability to stop using drugs.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that A Futile and Stupid Gesture is based on a 2007 book of the same name that examines the life of successful comedy writer Doug Kenney. It's suggested that overwork, an obsessive nature, and drug and alcohol use all contributed to Kenney's early demise. Admirers will see him as an innovator to be admired, but there's plenty in the film to support the view that he was a self-absorbed quipster stunted in his development somewhere near the adolescent level, perhaps because his parents didn't love him. The movie displays graphic photographs of women's breasts and men's and women's rear ends, but no genitals are shown. It's suggested that viewing such pictures spurred masturbation among the magazine's readers. A National Lampoon writer proposes an article called "The Joys of Wife-tasting." It's reported that the Disney company sued the Lampoon over a depiction of Minnie Mouse displaying her pasty-covered breasts. Cocaine use, alcohol use, and cigarette smoking are all shown. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," balls," "d--k," "cock," "t-ts," and "blow job." A suicide is suggested.

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Kid, 10 years old November 16, 2019

What's the story?

A FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE tells the story of comic innovator Doug Kenney (Will Forte), who committed suicide in 1980 at the age of 33. Kenney left Harvard to start the subversive, sexually explicit humor magazine National Lampoon, and the same countercultural, anti-establishment point of view showcased there would also fuel a successful radio show, a play, and the movie Animal House, which earned more than $100 million, and launch a generation of comic writers and performers who would, among other things, write and star in television's Saturday Night Live. With Harvard classmate Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson), Kenney innovated American humor, launching mainstream acceptance of a bawdier and more subversive kind of comedy. After graduation, he and Beard continued their mockery of hypocrisy and sentimentality in American morals, entertainment, government, and everyday life. Kenney's obsession with work, success, and taking proprietary credit for all comic innovations that came after him were fueled by alcohol and cocaine, the use of which is amply represented here. Addiction, selfishness, and personal isolation probably factored into his early demise. Given that he left his glasses and shoes at the top of a cliff in Hawaii (at the bottom of which his body was found), the movie suggests he jumped to his death. 

Is it any good?

This is a well-made and engaging biopic that takes a bit of license with the truth, as it explicitly confesses and mimics the subversive, dysfunctional style of its subject to tell his story. However, the one thing its clever writing, solid performances, and adept direction cannot do is make its subject more likable than he actually was. In fact, A Futile and Stupid Gesture goes to some trouble to show exactly how insensitive, disloyal, troubled, and difficult he was. You can say that this movie's essential flaw is that it's about Doug Kenney.

Far more interesting is the movie's focus on the cleverness and vitality of a group of young, mostly white men who, like Monty Python in England, injected a youthful vibrancy into English-language comedy of the late 1960s and '70s. The proposition that Kenney was the guiding force behind a new kind of comedy is contradicted by the movie itself as it presents a dozen writers just as talented, including Henry Beard, Tony Hendra, Rick Meyerowitz, Anne Beatts, and others who were contemporaries and older, thinking the same way, equally irreverent, equally witty and bright. The movie doesn't mention the way the two Harvard men who started National Lampoon were influenced by earlier comic innovators, but it does praise them for opening the door to Saturday Night Live, and for helping to launch the careers of such comedy icons as writer-directors Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis, and Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Chevy Chase (nicely played by Joel McHale). At 47, Will Forte strains credulity as a college student and even as Kenney at age 33. The casting seems odd, especially given that the actor playing his classmate, Beard, is 13 years younger.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Kenney's seeming need to be the center of attention. A Futile and Stupid Gesture suggests that Kenney's older, more favored brother dying young added to his parents' disdain for Doug and that he would never be satisfied with his success until his parents expressed admiration for him -- which they never did. Do you think that is an oversimplification? Why or why not?

  • The movie uses language and sexual references to depict the way Kenney and his colleagues used such language and sexual references. Do you think that content was handled well here? Do you think its inclusion contributes to the audience's understanding of Kenney, his cohorts, and their culture? Why or why not?

  • Where could you learn more about Doug Kenney?

Movie details

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