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Doggone it, people will love latest SNL spinoff

Stuart Saves His Family

Directed by Harold Ramis.

Written by Al Franken.

Starring Al Franken, Laura San Giacamo, Vincent D'Onofrio, Shirley Knight, and Harris Yulin.

Sony Cheri.

By Teresa Esser
Staff Reporter

If there is one thing that separates Stuart Saves His Family from the recent string of Saturday Night Live formula flicks, it is character development. Expanding upon Al Franken's popular character, the film really explores Stuart Smalley's background, beginning from his childhood tragedies to his current inability to deal with stress. The result is a fascinating look deep into Stuart's legendary full-length mirror.

Stuart's life, like his cable-TV show, is populated chiefly by grown children from dysfunctional families: co-dependents, rage-aholics, overeaters, debtors, adult children of alcoholics - "You know," Stu says, "my people." The movie chronicles its characters' attempts to overcome their past and to escape from their respective demons.

The movie's strength is its ability to walk the fine line between fiction and reality. Although all of the characters are grossly exaggerated, they are still agonizingly real. From Stu's sister Jodie (Leslie Boone), beset by obesity and a string of divorces, to his alcoholic father (Harris Yulin), or from his co-dependent mother (Shirley Knight) to Stu's own obsession with 12-step programs, art truly imitates life.

Although the movie is marketed as a comedy, it could easily be mistaken for a "20/20" documentary on the fall of the American family. No matter what Stuart tries in order to "save" his family, his efforts always fail so that he is left staring into his trademark mirror and attempting to cure himself. "You're good enough, you're smart enough, and, gosh darn it, people like you," Stuart repeats to himself.

"Maybe it's not your boss, and maybe it's not your immediate family," the movie continues, "but if you wait long enough and join enough 12-step programs, you will eventually find people who care." It doesn't matter that Stuart's "circle of friends" is comprised almost entirely of sponsors from his various 12-step programs, or that the success of his cable show depends on his failure to deal with his family. What matters is that Stuart has uprooted himself from his dysfunctional home and started over in another city.

The film resembles the opening scene in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers in that the scenes involving Stu's family are hopelessly exaggerated. However, unlike the murderous couple in Killers, Stuart chooses to deal with his problems in a socially acceptable way: by throwing a tantrum in front of his boss and retreating to the safety of his bedroom. "I'm not coming out until I run out of Fig Newtons," Stu shouts to the waiting circle of obsequious sponsors.

Stuart does get up, however, and eventually succeeds in boarding a Greyhound bound for his home in Minneapolis. "They say you can't go home again," Stu muses. "In my case, though, it should be that it would be crazy to go home again." That is, crazy because, although Stuart's family "has the alcoholic gene," two thugs in a Minneapolis tavern nearly force Stu to drink beer. Crazy also, because of the string of violent mishaps that results from the elder Mr. Smalley's drinking binges. Young Stuart was once hit by a car after being ordered to stand in the middle of the road, for example.

Throughout, the writing in this movie is excellent, and the themes are easy to relate to. If there is one flaw, it is that Stuart's exaggerated facial contortions sometimes border on the absurd.

It's no surprise that Stuart's chief goal throughout the film is to persuade all his family members to join 12-step programs. What is surprising is that the movie accurately portrays the difficulties of changing the lives of others. Stuart's brother (Vincent D'Onofrio), for example, lives at home and smokes pot, but he doesn't want Stuart to help him change his ways. Stuart's father, always threatening physical violence (and actually following through on it), is even more vocal in his condemnation of his son.

Stuart Saves His Family is an enjoyable and poignant portrayal of a dysfunctional family. Although the ad copy hypes it as "the movie that puts the fun back in dysfunctional," the movie transcends its comic basis from SNL by introducing characters that aren't objects of ridicule but real people who crave love and understanding.