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‘Stuart Saves His Family’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 14, 1995

IN THE SUBTLY riotous "Stuart Saves His Family," Al Franken is the eponymous, nasally host of a low-budget, self-help cable TV show called "Daily Affirmation With Stuart Smalley." He is not a licensed therapist, he wants to make clear, just a "caring nurturer" who dispenses pop-psych, 12-step advice for alcoholics, overeaters, Debtors Anonymous and just about every neurotic or addicted group out there.

Franken, who talks in a slightly tremulous, effeminate monotone, has his share of problems. Although he shed 167 pounds from his tubby frame, he suffers from low self-esteem, high anxiety and intense depression, thanks to a lifetime of verbal abuse from his mean-spirited Minneapolis family. He's also a terminal perfectionist, he says on the show, "but that's okay because I own my perfectionism."

Worst of all, the "Affirmation" program has been pushed to the 2:45 a.m. time slot, just after a hair-restoration infomercial. Following an altercation with the station manager (whom he calls a "rage-oholic" on the air), Franken loses the show altogether and finds himself depressed and in a "shame spiral." No amount of touchy-feely support from his friends (including Al-Anon sponsor Laura San Giacomo) can console him. When he gets word that his Aunt Paula has died, Franken's life plummets even further. He takes the bus to Minneapolis and returns to the relatives who made him the suffering wretch he is today.

"Stuart," the movie version of Franken's recurrent "Saturday Night Live" TV sketch (and Franken's book, "I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!") would be a movie to commit suicide by, if the doom-and-gloom atmosphere weren't so funny. Most of the men in Franken's family, for instance, have died of alcoholism. But they died because each one got plastered, tried to change a storm window at the top of the house and fell to their deaths.

As for the surviving Smalleys, they're denizens of dysfunctional hell. Franken's nasty, hard-drinking father (an amusingly dyspeptic Harris Yulin) loves to put people down. "I've got a good title for it," he says, when Franken mentions writing a possible autobiography. " `Waste of Space.' "

Franken's bullying, pot-smoking brother (Vincent D'Onofrio) still lives at home. His overeating sister (Lesley Boone) goes for the poundcake when the going gets tough. And his overweight, passive-aggressive mother (Shirley Knight) refuses to concede her husband has a drinking problem. Denial, Franken retorts, "ain't just a river in Egypt."

Director Harold Ramis, whose lengthy credits include "Groundhog Day," "Ghostbusters" and "National Lampoon's Vacation," lets the actors slosh and wallow hysterically in their particular pools of angst. But "Stuart," which Franken scripted, isn't just a collection of zany episodes. In the eye of this Tabloid America storm, Franken's initially one-dimensional character actually grows.

Somehow the Stuart shtick stays alive. It is precisely Franken's eye-rolling vision of his family that makes the Smalleys more than just a collection of blood-related jerks. When Franken tells his mother he lost the TV job, her reaction is typically unthinking: "Oh, I told you that would happen, didn't I?"

"You did," says Franken, patiently ignoring the lack of sensitivity. But his long-suffering face—the result of years of this kind of treatment—speaks comic volumes.

STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY (PG-13) — Contains profanity.

Copyright The Washington Post

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