Heal Thyself

Stuart Saves His Family

Of all the movies on my list of 100 favorites, none seems as out-of-place as Stuart Saves His Family, directed by Harold Ramis and written by and starring Al Franken. Who in his right mind would place a movie based on a regularly awful Saturday Night Live skit among his favorites?

Well ... me.

Despite the unpromising source material and an almost nonexistent theatrical release, I contend Stuart Saves His Family is one of the great film comedies of the 1990s.

Certainly, one component of my admiration is that the movie does the most with one of the least-appealing premises ever. A sketch-comedy character who had been annoying and monotonous even in small doses is taken out his public-access television program and thrown into the real world, and — shockingly — the results are hilarious, touching, and cathartic. Stuart Saves His Family works on virtually every level, but it’s all the more impressive considering the low expectations most viewers have going in.

A key to the movie’s success is that it’s equal parts comedy and drama, and adept at both. We’ve all seen dramas with comic touches, and comedies that throw in dramatic moments in the interest of having a Life Lesson. But few films have attempted — let alone succeeded at — working both sides of the line in nearly equal proportion.

The plot is pretty simple, as Stuart Smalley (Franken) has to deal with having his cable-access show canceled while various family crises erupt — fist fights, a hunting accident, an intervention — almost all of them created by his father’s alcoholism. Stuart must also confront past traumas, including a family photograph in front of the famous “Hollywood” sign that must be taken at any cost, traffic be damned.

Franken’s script presents one of the most honest, unflinching, and unsentimental looks at screwed-up families, addiction, and programmed recovery ever written. The characters might not have much meat on them, but they perfectly capture the different roles in a dysfunctional family — the addict, the various types of enablers, and the self-appointed messiah. An intervention with Stuart’s family contains one devastating denial: “That ... never happened.”

But the movie’s not a downer, because there are dozens of sublimely ridiculous moments — “Dad shot Donnie! Dad shot Donnie!” standing the tallest — that only work because they’re both funny and entirely accurate.

Stuart, like This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, somehow manages to nail the details of its subject without abandoning broad comedy or affectionate satire. Ramis brings a workmanlike professionalism to the project, with a good sense of timing and deft handling of the movie’s shifting tones.

The performances, too, successfully combine over-the-top elements and subtlety. Harris Yulin plays the raging, alcoholic father with the appropriate amount of bitter bluster — he’s a genuinely mean Rip Torn — but he gives the role enough weight that it’s not a cartoon; his barbs hurt. Shirley Knight is Stuart’s mother, and she barely registers for most of the movie, disappearing in a flurry of cooking until she just can’t take it any more. And Vincent D’Onofrio, before he developed that permanent Law and Order cocked-head scowl, plays Stuart’s stoner brother, and his arc is the heart of the movie.

But Franken, with his oblivious demeanor and lispy delivery, steals the show, turning Stuart from a one-joke weekly skit into something endearing and strangely resonant. The key is that the movie gives Stuart some context — a family that provides many, many reasons for him to desperately need those daily affirmations — and the opportunity to actually make some progress in his endless spiritual and mental-health journeys.

The resolution is surprisingly true-to-life, as Stuart recognizes that he cannot, indeed, rescue his family. The best he can do is save himself, and maybe bring one of his less-damaged kin with him.

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