It makes perfect sense for David Wain, one of the masterminds behind “Wet Hot American Summer,” to direct a biographical film behind one of the great figures of modern comedy. Douglas Kenney, who founded National Lampoon Magazine, wrote “Animal House” and “Caddyshack” and indirectly assembled much of the original cast of “Saturday Night Live,” before they were taken from under his nose, is a master of ensemble comedy. When a number of people work on one project with different styles of comedy, the result will often be something of widely varying quality, at least in each person’s eyes. Some respond more to screwball and one-liners (like me), some respond more to physical comedy (OK, also me). As was the case with National Lampoon, so it was with “Wet Hot American Summer.”
Then why, why, why does “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” a biopic of Kenney’s tragically short life directed by Wain feel so empty? Why does a most unconventional man, played satisfyingly but not compellingly by Will Forte (“Last Man on Earth”), receive a harshly conventional treatment? These are questions Wain must answer, both to us and to his comedy idols. Perhaps the starting point is the too often-made conflation between bombast and being interesting. In a decision truly befitting the film’s title, Kenney’s story is told by “modern” Doug (Martin Mull, “Veep”), who committed suicide in 1980. In an attempt to further humanize the man for whom a filmic depiction should be sufficient, Kenney’s resurrection feels not only strange, but somewhat malevolent, a cinematic dancing-on-the-grave of sorts.
Kenney, especially his romantic and professional relationships, is so naturally compelling. Having his story told lifelessly and whittled down to nothing for the sake of event-retelling feels like a giant missed opportunity. It’s not that the film is dramatically bad — in fact, it’s often rather funny (but not enough) — it’s just so utterly mediocre that it ends up just meaning nothing more than an excuse for Wain to pay homage to his role model. That’s good enough for him, but not for us.
The title of “Hearts Beat Loud,” the latest film from director Brett Haley (“The Hero”) comes from a song written by one of its protagonists Sam (Kiersey Clemons, “Flatliners”), one day after she takes a pre-med summer school class before going off to UCLA. Her teacher explains that the heart beats loudly during cardiovascular stress, but also, he says with something of a wink when someone falls in love. Later that same day, Sam meets Rose (Sasha Lane, “American Honey”) and, sure enough, she takes a liking to her. Her heart, beating loudly, becomes the subject of a song that she, after refusing several times, records with her father Frank (Nick Offerman, “Comrade Detective”), who is a retired musician who now owns a fading record shop in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a seemingly magical neighborhood where everyone knows each other.
In a sort of twist, after Frank secretly uploads the song to Spotify and it appears on the New Indie Mix playlist, “Hearts Beat Loud” becomes something of a minor hit. While it doesn’t lead to any tangible financial benefits, and We’re Not a Band — the adamant response by Sam that Frank turned into their name — doesn’t become a major phenomenon, father and daughter become closer. “Hearts Beat Loud” doesn’t offer anything by way of twists and turns, but it’s a delightful movie at which, when it hits theaters, one can imagine in late July, audiences will have a splendid time. What’s not to love? Offerman is reliably goofy, Clemons and Lane are charming and convincingly enamored with one another. Ted Danson (“The Good Place”), who plays Frank’s local bartender and friend, delivers some great jokes. The songs by We’re Not a Band, which sound something in between “Ultralife” by Oh Wonder and “Slip Away” by Perfume Genius, erring on the pop side, are pretty great!
There are some knots in the plot, which contains a tad too many threads for such a breezy movie. A strange will-they-won’t-they dynamic between Frank and his landlord Leslie (Toni Collette, “xXx: Return of Xander Cage”) feels forced and never leads to any sort of emotional peaks or valleys. Tacked on is a thread of Frank’s mother Marianne (Blythe Danner, who worked with Haley in “I’ll See You in My Dreams”), who is repeatedly arrested for shoplifting, even in her golden years.
Artificial though it is, this is also a film with some killer indie cred. Mitski is name-checked (a major thrill for yours truly, who could identify when Sasha Lane recommended “Your Best American Girl” without mentioning the artist) and Frank explains the merits of Animal Collective’s “My Girls.” Once Frank realizes that he needs to let go of his too-strong attachments to his college-bound daughter and his 17-year-old record store and develop a sense of parental responsibility, there is some tender emotional digging that might bring a faint tear to the eye.