Stuart Saves His Family

Director: Harold Ramis                
Al Franken, Laura San Giacomo, Vincent D'Onofrio

What? Stuart Saves His Family is an unknown movie? Well, yes, I think it can be classified as one. For one thing, this major studio release grossed less than a million dollars during its release. The reviews I read of it were horrible, with critics blasting the movie as an unfunny and infantile stretched out Saturday Night Live sketch. And we all know the overall quality Saturday Night Live has had during this decade. So that's why I originally skipped the opportunity to watch it. But over the next few years, I'd occasionally hear something surprising about the movie. I found out Siskel and Ebert gave Stuart "two thumbs up". I'd overhear or read a comment from someone who liked the movie. Most recently, a friend of mine told me about the movie, and how much she liked it. So I decided to finally give Stuart a chance. And I'm glad I did. While not a perfect movie - there are some awkward or completely misplaced moments - Stuart Saves His Family is actually a reasonably compelling movie. Yes, there are a number of humorous moments, but the more interesting parts of the movie are when it turns serious.

You read that right -  a Saturday Night Live inspired feature that has a number of dead serious moments. I think this explains the poor response to the movie. Audiences were expecting a goofy comedy akin to Wayne's World, and critics, who had probably sharpened their knives already to slaughter another SNL movie, probably weren't pleased that this SNL movie had the chutzpah to have a serious side. But now the wave of SNL movies has passed (saved for the occasion return with movies like A Night At The Roxbury), Stuart Saves His Family can be seen in a new perspective. It can now be seen as a kind of experiment, showing the funny side of dysfunctional families and people, as well as the more serious side. The movie's tagline, "You'll laugh because it's not your family. You'll cry because it is," sums its intentions perfectly.

For those who know little to nothing about Franken's Stuart Smalley character (like me before watching the movie), a brief explanation. Stuart is the lisping host of a Chicago public access show called Daily Affirmations With Stuart Smalley. With a strong urge to help others, he uses his show to pour out his advice on the airwaves, usually with one sentence pieces of advice for people to say out loud, like, "I deserve good things," "I'm entitled to my own share of happiness," and "I refuse to beat myself up." Not only is Stuart not a qualified therapist (he works as a waiter), but he is deep down an emotional wreck, belonging to a number of twelve-step programs. ("You're addicted to twelve-step programs!" mocks his father later in the movie.)

Some bad luck, including when his boss reads him samples of hate mail the show received in the past (a very funny sequence), and his subsequent firing causes Stuart to run home, curl up in bed and pig out on cookies. To make matters worse, Stuart's favorite aunt dies, and he travels back home for the will reading, where he encounters his very dysfunctional family: His alcoholic father ("Well, I told you [the firing] would happen. I hope I prepared you for the disappointment.")*, his pot smoking unemployed brother, his overweight sister, and his mother, who seems to be fine cooking and cleaning as always. The visit triggers a lot of childhood memories for Stuart - some pleasant, but mostly terrible, especially with memories of his brother and father mocking him. Stuart tries to forget about his family and leaves, but soon realizes that you can't completely escape your family. But instead of running to his bedroom for more cookies, Stuart decides to try something different for a change.

Stuart's decision at this point is one of the many interesting things about his character. Although suffering from a number of problems of his own, he still takes it on himself to help out when he can. It could be said that he gets happy through the miseries of others, and that by working to help others, he unconsciously gets the feeling of being superior to the unfortunate that he helps. And when he help others, or says his advisory one-liners such as his oft repeated, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!", he's also trying unconsciously to help or reassure himself. An interesting character, and not just in a serious sense. Franken's character is also funny, especially when he frequently gets into a crisis that he has no idea how to solve. When this happens, we see the real Stuart Smalley break out of his fragine shell in a panic and frenzy, and he's hilarious. Though even during his analytical, serious moments, Franken's deadpan delivery of his lines also brings some humor.

Director Ramis mostly manages to alternate between the comic and more serious scenes. He shows us a lot of flashbacks into Stuart's past, both funny and poignant - frequently both at the same time. A flashback when Stuart's father confronted a neighbor being mean to Stuart makes us smile, not only because it's amusing, but we smile because we can identify it with something similar in our own lives. Another flashback, where Stuart's brother and father mock his entering a competition gets laughs from their comments, but also makes us remember a time when we were let down by our family. The only place where Ramis stumbles is during the climactic sequence, when he temporarily cuts to a flashback to Stuart's youth when he and his family were in Hollywood. Though the Hollywood scene is funny to watch on its own, it is jarring when placed in the serious material in the climax.

Yes, the climax, instead of being funny, is serious. Very serious - in fact, it's one of the more powerful dramatic scenes I've seen in quite a while. You feel almost uncomfortable watching it, like you were eavesdropping. Another scene earlier in the movie, when Stuart's mother told him exactly what her feeling and her life was like also packed some punch. And credit Ramis for avoiding the traditional Hollywood "happy ending" for something more realistic. Though Stuart does, in a sense, triumph in the movie, not everything at the end is how he wants it. But still, Stuart has matured enough to realize that's how it is in life. Sometimes you can't do anything about it, and sometimes you shouldn't beat yourself trying to do it.

Reading the above paragraph again, I realize I may have given a false impression of this movie, that it is extremely grim. Don't get me wrong. Though there are a number of serious moments, there are also a number of laughs and moments when you'll nod your head, smile and say, "Yes." Also be sure to keep your eye out for a number of cameos, including Ted "Joxer" Raimi seen briefly. Stuart Saves His Family certainly isn't for everyone -  but to paraphrase someone, I thought it was good enough, smart enough, and I liked it.

* UPDATE - Reader Jonah Falcon wrote to point out it was actually the mother who said this, not the father. Thanks for this correction.

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See also: Your Three Minutes Are Up, Homegrown, Funland