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‘Stuart Saves His Family’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 12, 1995

God bless poor Stuart Smalley.

Created by "Saturday Night Live's" Al Franken as the host of "Daily Affirmation," a public access program for the terminally dysfunctional on Chicago cable, Stuart is the ultimate product of 12-step programming. Name a complex or a phobia or a disorder, and Stuart has suffered from it. And so, early on in "Stuart Saves His Family," the sad new comedy based on the late-night TV character, when this basket case extraordinaire learns that his show has been dumped, there is every reason to expect the worst.

Stuart is the newest super un-hero of the '90s, the over-eating son of an alcoholic Everyman who by some miracle pulls off the impossible and survives his own childhood. What he can't survive, though, is having his universe—which was just full enough to make a good television sketch—stretched out to a feature-length film.

These days, having "SNL" names on your resume isn't exactly a mark of distinction, and "Stuart Saves His Family" is loaded with them, from Franken, who also wrote the screenplay, to "SNL" producer Lorne Michaels, who co-produced the film, to Harold Ramis, who has directed many of the better "SNL" spinoffs.

Unfortunately, this isn't one of them. For those who haven't seen Franken do the character on "Saturday Night Live," Stuart's show consists of three elements: a chair, a mirror and Stuart. Peering into the camera with a priceless expression of cheerful resignation, Stuart leads his audience on a tour of a life so full of disappointment and banality, so utterly devastating in its humiliations, that you're amazed the character wants to carry on.

There's a genuinely tragic side to Stuart's character, and for the movie to work the filmmakers have to keep it in balance with the comedy so that the pathos of his life doesn't kill all the laughs. But Ramis can't keep the movie's tone under control, and, as a result, it teeters precariously between farce and wake.

Despite his various afflictions and his nut case family—played by Harris Yulin, Shirley Knight, Vincent D'Onofrio and Lesley Boone—Stuart manages to keep bravely plugging along. That he doesn't throw in the towel is actually the most appealing aspect of Stuart's personality. But this, too, is something we already knew from the character on television. Stuart is a disarming figure—likable in small doses, but fragile and not particularly adaptable. He deserves better. And, for heaven's sake, don't let him read this film's reviews; it might just be the last straw.

Stuart Saves His Family is rated PG-13.

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