You'll laugh because it's not your family. You'll cry because it is.
Saturday Night Live has a well-worn tradition of taking their most popular skits and producing them into feature films. Such debacles as It's Pat! and Coneheads are proof why SNL skits should be chosen VERY carefully when it comes to making them into movies. Stuart Smalley, Al Franken's sappy, chubby guru character, became a hit with audiences in the '90s, and was thus turned into full-length feature starring Franken and directed by Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day). Though Stuart Saves His Family bombed at the box office upon initial release, Paramount gives you the chance to get in touch with your inner child and laugh at one of the better SNL films on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Stuart (Franken) is the host of "Daily Affirmation with Stuart Smalley," a cable access show about getting in touch with the person who matters most: you! Everything is going great until his show is cancelled and Stuart is thrust into a "shame spiral" from which there seems no escape (except for the occasional thirty or forty Oreo cookies). In the midst of all his trauma, Stuart gets the call from home that his favorite aunt has passed away. Without much hope for an easy visit, Stuart makes the trek back for the funeral.
As it is, the funeral is a happier place to be than his house. Stuart now must relive the trails and tribulations that he faced when he grew up, including an alcoholic father (Yulin), a co-dependant mother (Knight), a stoner brother (D'Onofrio), and an over eating, over panicked sister (Lesley Boone). Stuart's father calls him a "waste of space," so we can understand his apprehension about this visit.
While home Stuart realizes that his family is filled with more dysfunction than the Jackson family reunion. His father is in need of help with his drinking, and his brother Donnie is heading down the same path. At the same time Stuart's mother puts up with everything while ignoring the rest of the world in her frantic state of cooking and baking.
Can Stuart help put his family back together, as well as get his cable show back?
Stuart Saves His Family is a very funny movie. Unlike many other SNL movies, Stuart Saves His Family succeeds by making its characters multidimensional. Stuart doesn't just come off as a puffy, love-soaked simpleton; he is a real person with real feelings. If you were to compare Stuart to the head bopping Butabi Brothers (Chris Kattan and Will Ferrell) in A Night at the Roxbury, you'd see the immediate difference. Franken plays Stuart with a touch of whimsy, making him very likable even with his annoying quirks. This is the rarest of occasions where a character makes the leap from the small screen to the big screen with tremendous results. We get to see Stuart's childhood, and this time it's not played only for laughs. Stuart went through a lot of trials, and the more of Stuart's family we meet, the more we understand how he came to be.
The supporting cast surrounding Franken shines as well. Headed by Harris Yulin (Multiplicity) as the abusive father, Stuart's family is a laugh riot that just may remind you of someone in your own clan. Vincent D'Onofrio is soberingly funny as Stuart's older brother Donnie. Donnie has the brains to realize he's headed down the same path as his father and attempts to make a change. D'Onofrio has been able to literally "disappear" into his character with each film role, whether it be as Orson Welles in Ed Wood or a giant human cockroach in Men In Black. Here he effectively plays a beer drinkin', bong smokin' slacker. Shirley Knight (As Good As It Gets) as Stuart's mother reminds me of a few neighborhood moms I knew as a kid. She is blissfully unaware of all the chaos surrounding her (or is she?), all the while baking hams and cooking pies. Laura San Giacomo (Just Shoot Me) rounds out the cast as Stuart's best friend. Though I haven't been much of a fan of San Giacomo's television work, here she fares well as a co-twelve stepper alongside Stuart.
The script sparkles with moments of intelligent comedy that hit very close to home (much like Albert Brooks' Mother). Franken has a keen eye for little moments and plays off them well. For instance, while Stuart is talking on the phone, his mother picks up a different house phone and starts dialing very slowly. I can't begin to express how many times this has happened to me in my own household. These are the moments when the film reaches beyond simple comedy and becomes something special. The film deals with touchy issues: alcoholism, family dysfunction, interventions. Normally this kind of material wouldn't be touched with a ten-foot pole by SNL films. Stuart Saves His Family delves into these topics with care and warmth. Instead of making a mockery out of them or taking the easy comedic way out, Stuart Saves His Family follows a different path. You just may be surprised at the touching insight Stuart Saves His Family provides. Director Harold Ramis guides the film with gentle ease, letting the laughs come naturally and without force.
Stuart Saves His Family is presented in anamorphic widescreen. Paramount has done a fine job of bringing this film to DVD. Colors look sharp and bright, blacks solid. Though a few shots offered some softness, this most likely is the work of the filmmakers and not the transfer. The picture was also free of edge enhancement and most grain/dirt. Overall a nice job by Paramount.
Audio is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Surround. Both are presented well with most sound coming from the front speaker. This is not unlike most all comedies where surround sound is not featured as prominently as, say, Jurassic Park. No matter, as Stuart Saves His Family is not in need of thrashing decibels. The tracks work well for the film with dialogue, music, and effects mixed evenly.
Stuart Saves His Family is low on features, but does include the usual anamorphic theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though a very funny film, Stuart Saves His Family will not be to everyone's tastes. If you're looking for the slaphappy fun of The Blues Brothers of the off-the-wall antics of Wayne and Garth, you won't find them here. The movie does tend to linger in areas, especially some of the "Daily Affirmation" scenes. Actress Lesley Boone as Stuart's sister tends to grate a bit (though I think that was the point). It certainly would have been fun to have had a commentary by Franken or Ramis, but since Stuart Saves His Family wasn't a huge hit, the omission is understandable.
If you're a big fan of the "Daily Affirmations" skit or an SNL junkie, Stuart Saves His Family is a must for your collection. As a branch off of the skit or on its own, Stuart Saves His Family is an excellent comedy about the love, heartache, and humor that takes place in every family. For around $25-30 dollars this might be a bit steep, so make sure you visit the rental counter first before you make your purchase, because you're good enough, you're smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like you!
A cute little movie like this doesn't deserve jail time. See Stuart Saves His Family with someone you love, though maybe not a family member.
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