Refracted through a wistfully nostalgic lens, Douglas Triola’s wonderfully titled documentary, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, is an entertaining and often aggrandizing look back at the once popular publication.
Fans of the now defunct satirical counterculture magazine that reached its zenith in the 1970s, and fizzled out by the late 1980s, will probably appreciate this rather self-congratulatory film the most, as they rightly should, but just about any fan of American comedy will find much here to hold interest and giggle over.
The biggest strengths of Triola’s film has got to be the doubleheader of fascinating stock footage and the large cast of interviewees on hand to recount the rich oral history of National Lampoon. To see baby-faced John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Harold Ramis amongst others is an undeniable gut-busting banquet — that such talent came together over so tawdry a little rag is quite the coup d’état.
And testimony and disgression from former writers, editors, collaborators and admirers, including Tony Hendra, Michael O’Donoghue, Ivan Reitman, Kevin Bacon, and a somewhat over zealous Judd Apatow also add tenability and color — though I can’t for the life of me figure out why Billy Bob Thornton was interviewed and given so much air time.
In fact, while the cross-section of celebrity talking heads is impressive, it’s also relentless and more than once oversells the story to the point of maudlin mush. That’s the biggest faux pas here and it happens over and over.
Triola’s film falters in a few other hard to miss areas as well, as in its overstated use of animation, which becomes a crutch of exaggerated and unbalanced segues. Combining with a third act that is obsessed with the idea that the late Doug Kenney, National Lampoon’s co-founder and editor during the salad days, was a tortured tragic figure whose untimely passing at the age of 33 made him a saintly martyr.
It’s quite likely that too much is made of this, though it makes for dramatic heft in the narrative, and of course Kenney’s death was certainly a grievous loss to many. But the shrewd sentimentality seems to bubble up out of nowhere and doesn’t mesh with what’s gone on before, making it circumspect.
For all the bouncy banter and seditious accomplishments that National Lampoon achieved, the sexist misogyny, drugging, and debauchery mostly just comes across as pathetic and bad-tempered again and again. Yes they were emblematic of the zeitgeist, but it might have been valuable for Triola to address it rather than cold-shoulder it.
And then, in search of an adjacent ending to hang it all on Triola trots out a rather chauvinist anecdote that has an invalidating effect to what’s a mostly likable chronicle. Ultimately it’s a hit-and-miss soiree, but then again, that’s pretty much the National Lampoon maxim.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)