REVIEWS: TWO NEW NETFLIX DARKLY COMIC BIOPICS!
Netflix has two relatively new original films, both of which relate fascinating, frequently hilarious stories about real people. Let's take a quick look at them together!
A FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE
Director David Wain ("Wet Hot American Summer," "They Came Together") typically makes parodies, and his biopic of National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney plays like a parody of biopics. It's extraordinarily meta, with characters constantly interrupting scenes - even heavy, dramatic scenes - to speak directly to camera, or comment on the un-reality of what's being depicted. Martin Mull even narrates as a "present-day Kenney" at an age that the real Doug Kenney sadly never reached.
This makes sense, and not just because of Wain's background, or the fact that he's filled essentially every role in the movie with recognizable comedians and comic actors. It feels like the tone Kenney - a wiseass who seemingly could only relate to the world and other people through humor - would have appreciated and wanted for his own life story. From Wain's perspective, the tragedy of Kenney is that he didn't know how to feel good about himself unless he was making people laugh. And it's impossible to live under that kind of constant pressure - no one can ALWAYS be the most hilarious person in the room.
What's most impressive about the movie is that, despite constantly breaking the fourth wall and refusing to truly engage seriously with just about any facet of Kenney's life, the movie still builds to an effective emotional climax. Kenney (played by Will Forte) was a very funny man, but his life was pretty sad, especially toward the end, and "Futile and Stupid Gesture" doesn't shy away from that, or only focus on the good times to leave us laughing.
Thankfully, this isn't just another visit to the "comedians are all miserable" trope. "Futile and Stupid Gesture" really investigates this idea, top to bottom. What drives depressed, sad, alienated people into comedy? What pushes the best, funniest people to constantly make themselves better, and what sacrifices are required of them? Why is success, even great success, ultimately unfulfilling?
Much of the credit goes to Forte, who has mastered the art of delivering a funny joke with sad eyes. Domhnall Gleeson is also spectacularly deadpan as Kenney's National Lampoon co-creator Henry Beard. (Between this and his take on General Hux, Gleeson is maybe the most underrated comic actor of the moment.)
Wain made the intriguing decision to cast comedians who embody the spirit of the icons that surrounded Kenney during the height of National Lampoon, rather than focusing on finding people who resemble them physically, and it pays off beautifully. There was no chance that we were going to truly lose ourselves in the illusion that some random actor is young Chevy Chase, John Belushi or Gilda Radner, so why not let hilarious contemporary performers who people want to watch give it a whirl? It's fun to see Joel McHale recreate Chevy Chase pratfalls. These scenes work on two levels: as straight-ahead depictions of past events, and comic tributes to the comedy greats of the past. (John Daly's take on "Caddyshack"-era Bill Murray is so right, in its way, I almost want to see a spin-off film about him, and Thomas Lennon's Michael O'Donoghue is note-perfect.)
For most of the runtime of "A Futile and Stupid Gesture," I thought it was a genial, fun, nostalgic trip through some very memorable years in American comedy. But Kenney's story takes that dark turn, and Wain's movie really nails the pathos. There's an emotional resonance here that sneaks up on you, and the fact that it's impossible to see it coming, because the movie is so funny, makes it all the more intense when it arrives. This is a terrific movie.
THE POLKA KING
This is just an okay movie.
Jack Black stars as Jan Lewan, a Polish immigrant to the US who runs a gift shop and a local polka band but dreams of more. This eventually leads him to develop a Ponzi scheme he'll use to bilk his fans for millions of dollars, along with other, equally over-the-top escapades. (All of Lewan's various schemes and adventures in the film are true, and backed up by real footage that screens during the credits. Maya Forbes' film is based on a documentary, "The Man Who Would be Polka King," that's also available on Netflix.)
Black dives head-first into his portrayal of Lewan - I'm not sure if the accent is accurate, but it's definitely consistently applied - and Forbes has surrounded him with winning comic actors. Jason Schwartzman plays Lewan's gifted but eternally frustrated bandleader, who wants to one day be known as Mickey Pizzazz. Jenny Slate plays Lewan's wife Marla, who's jealous of his (relative) fame and notoriety, JB Smoove is the regulator who gets wise to Lewan's schemes and Jacki Weaver steals the show as Lewan's suspicious mother-in-law.
And yet... and yet... the movie ultimately fails to give us real insight into the man himself. At times, it depicts Lewan as a sympathetic, even heroic figure - a person who truly embodies the American Dream and the spirit of Horatio Alger - before tarnishing him as a criminal liar. In some scenes, he's depicted as an idiot who has stumbled accidentally into a profitable venture, while at other times, he's almost supernaturally crafty.
It's certainly possible to make a movie about a figure who's contradictory and tough to pin down. ("I, Tonya" is a popular recent example.) But it's also important for the filmmakers, I think, to have some kind of take or perspective on the story they're telling. Forbes and co-writer Wallace Wolodarsky don't seem to have much to say about Lewan, the man. Their story is largely taken up by his twisted adventures. And those ARE frequently outrageous. But that will only take a movie so far, I fear.
One more thing that irritated me, but it's a very minor spoiler: At one point in the film, Lewan has convinced a number of his "investors" to fund a lavish European tour. He has promised them actual face-time with The Pope. This is a real incident that happened: somehow, Lewan actually got an audience with Pope John Paul II. I'd have really liked to see how he did it, but the movie glosses over this part, seemingly for comic effect. We go from Lewan on a tour bus panicking to... him standing in front of The Pope. I think this kind of typifies my issue with the entire movie. It's just not that interested in what really happened. The movie just thinks this guy and his antics are amusing.