Approximately one year ago, Netflix released a new film directly (after a premier at the 2018 Sundance Festival) to their streaming service. It was called A Futile and Stupid Gesture. Their marketing pushed it on me and, I have to say, they had me already at the title. In case it isn’t obvious, the name of the film is a line from the movie Animal House. The film is based on a book with the same title and is a dramatization of the lives of the men who founded National Lampoon. The movie breaks the fourth wall by speaking of its sometimes-less-than-believable casting for the celebrities of the story by having “modern day” portrayals of the characters acknowledging the actors portraying their younger selves. Based purely on the trailer, it looked like a clever premise and a must see.
Netflix, however, after some initial brilliant successes, is now known to mix a fair share of stinkers in with their “Netflix Original Content.” Before committing to this one I decided to dig around and find out what reviews were available* and what they said. Unfortunately, the reviews have been decidedly mixed. One in particular said something to the effect that “this is OK, but you should really watch National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead instead. I dutifully added that second title to my list and, in short order, forgot which version was which.
The confusion was resolved for me when Netflix decided to take Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead off of their streaming service. This one is a 2015 film done as a true documentary. A number of the key players from the 1970s do on-screen interviews. “Flashback” content is presented both with photos and film footage from the time as well as clever animations using iconic National Lampoon content art. The interviews cover a wide range of the actual players in this tale and, occasionally, get rather intimate and personal.
Beating Netflix to the punch, I’ve now watched the latter but have not watched the former, although I may yet watch it some time in the future.
I never really knew how much of the comedy of the eighties and nineties grew out of the National Lampoon‘s soil. My own experience of the film’s subject, when I was a young’un, was ten to twenty years behind the actual events and very filtered and fragmented.
My first taste of Doug Kenney and Henry Beard was after I had discovered The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and Dungeons and Dragons. Somebody passed me a well-used copy of Bored of the Rings and I ate it up. Decades later the occasional phrase from that book will still pop into my head. I also clearly remember when it was given to me. The presenter explained earnestly that “Harvard Lampoon” is actually the “National Lampoon” people. I nodded just as earnestly and filed that away as a very important fact, even though I didn’t quite follow.
I suppose that in the early 1980s, most teenage boys knew what National Lampoon was. Many, like myself, probably only knew it through reputation rather than experience. I could probably recognize the art style of the publication and knew it was supposed to be really funny. I also knew that my parents would tan my hide if they caught me reading it. By that time, the magazine was already well past its prime, but the use of the brand name was still going strong. So I might have been able to associate, through the title, National Lampoon with Animal House, although I’d yet to see the movie. I would not have associated Caddyshack with National Lampoon despite the name of the author of my borrowed book having writing and production credits for that movie. In fact, at that point, I’d not even seen Caddyshack despite the fact that my high school year book would soon declare it my senior class’ “Top Film.”
Eventually I watched Animal House, Caddyshack, Vacation, and more. I watched This Is Spinal Tap, almost all of John Hughes’ comedies, and Groundhog Day without knowing how they all tied back to the the early National Lampoon. For most of these films, I’ve watched them many, many times over and I’ve realized these things keep growing on you the more you’re exposed. Certain imagery, like the “We’ll shoot this dog” magazine cover have become a cultural foundation, a part of this nation’s historical tapestry. For me, this documentary finally reassembled all those jumbled references into a coherent (as far as that’s possible with such a subject) narrative and more of an appreciation of what it may have been like to live it; to have been ten to twenty years’ younger and perhaps have read Bored of the Rings in 1969.
I don’t know whether A Futile and Stupid Gesture will be worth it or just live up to its title. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead was well worth the investment. It was illuminating, it was really funny, and it was a chance to see the story told by the people who were there, many of whom (Chevy Chase, Kevin Bacon, and P.J. O’Rourke to name a few) you already know well.
*One drawback of a “Netflix Original” is its not going to have the reviews on Amazon or other video outlets to help provide a balanced opinion. Especially with the streaming content, I’ve noticed that Netflix likes to push the favorable reviews to the front making almost every movie seem better than it is.