When David Wain was about 13 years old, he and a friend made a movie on VHS that became something of a legend in his family. Their film, “Food Abusers,” was a mockumentary about whatever was in his parents’ fridge at the time that devolved into a “disgusting mess.” It was also a harbinger of things to come.
As a grown-up director, Wain has staged multiple food-fight sequences—one of which very well may make you cry. The latest appears in Netflix’s A Futile and Stupid Gesture, a biopic about National Lampoon founder and Animal House co-writer Doug Kenney. “Food Abusers” was just a stepping stone: “I should have given it as my calling card to get this job,” Wain jokes during an interview at the Sundance Film Festival, where he’s been amusing himself by doing magic tricks for the reporters that come to meet him.
It’s not just a history of Bluto-style antics that make Wain a good fit to put Kenney on screen. As a member of The State, the zeitgeisty 90s comedy troupe, and creator of Wet Hot American Summer, Wain is indebted to his subject’s legacy even if he wasn’t particularly familiar with Kenney before the project came along. Kenney—played with wild-eyed intelligence masking pain by Will Forte—helped build an institution that gave rise to the likes of Saturday Night Live and inspired generations. But despite his contributions, he was overshadowed by contemporaries like Harold Ramis, who had this to say after Kenney died at the bottom of a cliff in Hawaii in 1980: “Doug probably fell while he was looking for a place to jump.”
Wain sees a parallel between his movie and a recent phenomenon about another under-appreciated historical figure: Hamilton. “In other words: this is as important and as influential as Hamilton was for Broadway,” he deadpans, before adding that he wants more people to know that the comedians, TV shows, and movies they love today don’t “come from nowhere. It comes from an evolution that had a big turning point and major amount of invention around this one time, and this one guy gives some really interesting context to the comedy we watch today.”
After being approached with the idea to adapt Josh Karp’s biography of Kenney, Wain worked with a team including writers Michael Colton and John Aboud to find the right balance of humor, savvy, and pathos. Along the way, they spoke with people who knew Kenney, including his National Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard (played by Domhnall Gleeson in the film). They were trying “to make a biopic that was as outside the box as Doug might have done, but also consciously not trying to make a 70s- or 80s-style movie,” Wain says. “We wanted to it to be told in a modern-movie language, but at the same time obviously evoke the time and place that it took place.”
The result is a structure in which an older version of Kenney (Martin Mull) offers fourth-wall-breaking commentary on the story that unfolds as Forte plays a younger Kenney. This allows Wain and the writers to take a swing at the blindingly white boys’ club of Kenney’s era; after a sequence demonstrating how Kenny and Beard assembled the Lampoon’s writers’ room with a collection of eccentrics, for example, current Saturday Night Live star Chris Redd approaches Mull and asks: “So there were no funny black writers in the 70s?” Standing beside him, Liz Femi adds: "And just one funny woman?"
They are pointed questions, and in Wain’s opinion, important ones. “This is a history of a time and a moment and a place and an organization that was definitely driven by white males with a certain misogynist thread to it, and there’s no getting around that,” Wain says. “I think that for us to apologize for it would not be appropriate but for us to contextualize it is appropriate.”
Despite filming a lot of material that never made the final cut, Wain was careful not to spend too much time re-creating scenes from Kenney’s work, like Caddyshack. Still, he didn’t completely shy away from nostalgia, and has actors embodying the more famous names in Kenney’s orbit. He came upon a “revelation” when he enlisted Joel McHale, who spent years working with Chevy Chase on Community, to play Chase in the film. “He obviously knew this guy, but he also brilliantly researched the Chevy that was then in the early 70s—which is a totally different Chevy,” Wain says.
But Wain also wanted performers who aren’t known for comedy in the mix, like Gleeson—playing a character described as “the oldest guy who was ever a teenager.” The relationship between Kenney and Beard drew Wain to the script: the movie, he says, is “about friendship . . . something that I just think is beautiful.”
Wain managed to find a lot of beauty in Kenney’s story—even in a blissfully funny food fight that was cathartic for the entire cast. “I think everyone got way more into it than they realized they would. Some people at the beginning were like, ‘Uh, I don’t want to get all dirty,’” he says. “And as soon as the energy of it came, boy, did people go nuts.”
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JESSICA CHASTAIN, actor, producer.
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