I often feel as though I am one of the lone defenders of the brilliance offered by Al Franken during his lengthy stint on Saturday Night Live. Many of his skits and jokes were absolutely brilliant, but do to some sort of terrible politics going around the office in the early nineties for one reason or another he was rarely allowed to shine. Now with that being said, Franken did offer viewers with one of the greatest and most under-appreciated characters in the shows long history, Stuart Smalley, the hapless self-help spouting dandy of a man whose own bizarrely troubled past often emerged when he would deal with his guests, many of which were famous, think back to his scenes with both Michael Jordan and Macaulay Culkin for specific examples. Now I am quite aware that a character from Saturday Night Live rarely makes an appropriate transition to the film space, take Pat, The Night At The Roxbury Guys or even MacGruder as blatant examples of this, however, on a rare occasion something happens and a surprisingly decent film emerges from the result, whether it be The Coneheads, Blues Brothers or even the surprisingly watchable Superstar. The beauty of Stuart Saves His Family, however, is that although it does draw its inspiration directly from a character Franken made for the show, it could beautifully work as a standalone film, one in which Stuart exists entirely in his own world and does not rely too heavily on the acts and quotes that made his character popular on the show, or to be more succinct, Stuart Smalley could have been a great character were this the first time we were to be introduced to him on screen. Now I am also quite aware that much of this films magic and enjoyment probably resides in the fact that Harold Ramis directed the film, and my adoration for his films An American Werewolf In London and Groundhog Day, not to mention my love for Caddy Shack for before I began writing this blog. Stuart Saves His Family tanked at the box offices and led to one of Franken's funnier Smalley performances, in which he spirals into shame eating, however, its failure to maintain numbers and return profit do not properly reflect how exceptional of a comedy this has become over the years. It deserves to be mentioned among some of the comedy classics and certainly needs to be lifted out of its ever expanding obscurity.
Stuart Saves His Family, as I have noted, focuses on the life of Stuart Smalley (Al Franken) a self-help coach whose show on a public access channel has recently been cancelled due to a dispute he had between himself and the stations manager the rotund and virulent Roz Weinstock (Camille Saviola). Already dealing with the shame of this occurrence, Stuart locks himself in his apartment much to the dismay of his friends, most notably his Al-Anon coach Julia (Laura San Giacomo). To make matters worse, Stuart receives a call from his sister Jodie (Leslie Boone) explaining that their aunt has died, which has caused an uproar within the family. Forced to return home in hopes of fixing the divide, viewers are introduced to the addiction fueled Smalley family, whether it be Stuart's pot smoking zombie-like brother Donnie, played with a surprising deal of commitment by Vincent D'Onofrio, or his overeating Mom (Shirley Knight). Yet it is quite clear that much of the family trouble emerges from his Dad (Harris Yulin) who suffers from a serious case of alcoholism. When it is revealed that their beloved Aunt cannot be buried in her desired plot, Donnie and Dad take it to cops ending up in their arrest and the desire of Stuart to wash his hands of the entire mess. Heading back to his hometown it is revealed that Stuart has been offered a job at Health Cable Network because they find his show powerful and necessary viewing. It is during his recording of this show that he is informed that the family is now finding trouble selling their Aunt's house due to it being built on another individuals property. Attempting to make amends with the neighbor, Stuart only makes matters worse causing the neighbor to demand more money an act that is not cleared up in court, but only saved due to Stuart's insistence on honesty. In the process the family comes to accept that their father is indeed a serious alcoholic when he drunkenly shoots Donnie during a hunting accident. The family then has an intervention forcing themselves to acknowledge their various addictions and leading to Stuart indirectly saving his family, especially Donnie who goes so far as to follow Stuart back to his city in an attempt to get his life on track, the loving Stuart takes him in with no question whatsoever.
Stuart Saves His Family is a masterful comedy, although the funny elements of this film are clearly masking a larger commentary on the problems of escapism plaguing an America that Franken saw emerging during the late eighties and early nineties. Stuart's parents are clearly quite conservative and fail to deal with a changing landscape, one that is most obviously evidenced by their inability to comprehend Stuart's lifestyle, one that is not traditionally masculine, and as such leads them to assume he is a gay and therefore a shame on the family. To some degree their lack of understanding to Stuart's unique identity causes them to seek solace in substance abuse. Similarly, Jodie attempts to maintain a heteronormative lifestyle, yet since she only seems to find abusive and disrespectful husbands she cannot maintain any degree of an ideal lifestyle, leading to a hypochondriac lifestyle which results in her latching on to others. Donnie has also clearly failed to escape his own failed dreams and has all but given up, in fact, if it were not for Stuart viewers could assume that he would have returned on another dangerous hunting trip without even thinking about the consequences. Stuart serves as a character whose addiction is not necessarily obvious, while he certainly does not abuse substances he seeks understanding and safety through sacrificing himself to others, which indirectly allows him to ignore his own problems. It is not until Stuart begins concerning himself with himself that he is able to make positive changes in his life, two of which come in the form of his new show and a burgeoning relationship with Julia. However, Franken is clear in his script to suggest that while individual acceptance is nice it often takes a group to help conquer larger problems and the two elements must work interchangeably and if that means leaving your family in order to find friends that help you achieve those goals then so be it, often times an individual can only help so much before it is the other persons responsibility to make changes. The ending of the film reminds viewers that if you at least try to show people this it will often be enough for them to take the next step.
Key Scene: Some of the flashbacks that are intercut with Stuart's travels are quite enjoyable and help to advance portions of the plot along without spending too much time on detracting from narrative, perhaps the best example of this occurs with the naming of the Ajax Knight scene from Stuart's childhood.
So the DVD for this film is OOP and quite expensive, I intend to get one by hook or crook at some point, however, within the past few days Netflix added this to their Watch Instantly queue and very much made my day. Please watch this masterpiece and criminally underrated film as a hopes to bring it somewhat out of obscurity.