(Pictured below: A great weight upon one man’s shoulders)
Plot Summary: He’s good enough, he’s smart enough and, doggone it, people like him! He’s Stuart Smalley (Al Franken), and he’s bringing his nutty New Age act to the big screen in a heartwarming comedy that’s “flat-out amazing” (F.X. Feeney, L.A. Weekly). Stuart’s “shame spiral” begins when his cable-access show, Daily Affirmation With Stuart Smalley, is abruptly cancelled. Then Stuart’s favorite aunt dies, sending him home to his co-dependent mom, alcoholic dad, couch-potato brother and overeating sister. But there’s a big heart beating underneath that loud cardigan sweater, and with the help of his best friend and Al-Anon sponsor (Laura San Giacomo), Stuart takes on the armies of denial that threaten his family and future.
Over the years I’ve heard various things about Stuart Saves His Family, mostly dismissive and negative. To a certain degree I get it. Stuart Smalley made occasional appearances on Saturday Night Live and was more of a cult figure compared to the popularity of The Blues Brothers, The Coneheads and Wayne’s World. I think of his popularity being on the same level of Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts – you have to be a bit of a comedy nerd to know about it. (And if you’re a millennial? Forget it.)
Aside from not being particularly mainstream, there is the indisputable fact that Stuart is the kind of person who’s an “easy target,” namely somewhere between Daria’s Mr. O’Neill and the fat kid who got constantly picked on in school. He’s soft spoken and earnest. He’s somewhat effeminate. He’s in touch with his feelings and open about his problems. He cares about other people. He wears comfy sweaters and isn’t afraid of pastels. In 1995, this was the antithesis of what a man was supposed to be (in some ways, it still is). So who was Stuart’s audience supposed to be in American cineplexes?
In 1995? Not very many people. I’d argue that 22 years later his appeal would be much broader, mostly because our culture has taken paces toward embracing its “inner weird” and accepting outsiders. Back then the comedy behind Stuart was that people were laughing at him and his message. That’s not how Stuart Saves His Family works because it’s addressing reality. When Franken sat down to write the screenplay he was answering questions about the character he created: Who was this person? What was his background? Why is he the way he is? What was his childhood like? Why does he care about certain things so much?
The truth is I’ve encountered several Stuarts during my life, people who have something to offer but for whatever reason aren’t taken seriously. It could be what they look like, their sexual orientation, the sound of their voice, their struggles with a mental illness or how their lives are often crammed with what Stuart calls “crises.” These are good people who are trying to get by in messed up circumstances. They’re vulnerable and by no means perfect, but have a special language because they understand isolation and pain. In Family Stuart is one of those rare characters who understands this language, then takes it a step further. He genuinely wants to help others.
Still, it’s easy for the average person to forget this because he’s dressed like Mr. Rogers. You have to get past that in order to understand the film- Stuart is no longer a joke but a legitimate character, setting him apart from other SNL ventures like, say, It’s Pat (1994) or A Night At The Roxbury (1998). This means that not every scene is a comedy bit; there is more emphasis on story and development.
Also, what many people don’t know- or forget- is that the film was in very good hands.
That’s a picture of Franken with Harold “OMG Ghostbusters” Ramis, one of the most respected comedy directors of his generation. Among his credits are Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation, the Analyze This films, and most notably Groundhog Day, a cult success that captured the hearts of our mothers, Bill Murray fans, several of my film professors and various cinephiles who continue to write about it every year (like it’s a holiday or something). Ramis’ work alternated between wacky and situational, with Family falling into the latter category. Stuart has more in common with the frustrations of Phil Connors and the therapy sessions in Analyze This than the hijinks in Caddyshack or the disasters wrought by Clark Griswold.
The story goes something like this: Franken wasn’t considering a film project at all. It was Ramis who stepped in and saw potential in the Stuart character. “It was Harold’s baby,” Franken told Vanity Fair in 2015. Lorne Michaels fast-tracked it into production and it wasn’t long before all three were on set, making a film about dysfunctional families and how to survive them.
Together they conquered that material, striking a balance between funny, poignant and painful. There are elements of Family that seem second nature to me- flashbacks to traumatic childhood memories, being in therapy, fraught parent-child relationships, and getting treated like shit by various people because they know you’re “nice.” Case in point: when Stuart is reminded of how obese he was as a child… in the middle of a wake.
There are other elements that aren’t as familiar but just as serious. Stuart’s family often dissolves into hysterics and violence due to enabling and alcoholism. Most of this is perpetuated by his father (Harris Yulin), who is as volatile as he is verbally abusive. It’s revealed that throughout his childhood he nicknamed Stuart “Waste Of Space” and “Sir Eats-A-Lot.” That hurts enough, but with time it becomes clear he has equally little regard for his wife, other children, authority… or anyone else.
As a result Stuart never feels stable, let alone had any chance of being “normal.” The tragedy is that he really does love and care about his family, enough to drop everything and help them out. At the same time he resents how they continue to mock and control him. After each disastrous visit with them he retreats to his apartment, locks the door, then cries while eating fig newtons.
Oh my God. Wait a minute. Actually that reaction is pretty damn normal.
Watching Stuart beyond the realm of his Daily Affirmations on SNL reveals that there’s more to him than a guy speaking to a mirror and giving self-help advice to celebrities. At times he’s frustrated, angry, panicked or sad, but we also see him at his finest. His family try his patience but repeatedly bring out his best intentions. He wants to support them, to make things better, to do right by them and make them proud.
(Spoiler: It’s a lot of pressure.)
Likewise, as silly and unusual as Stuart seems, he proves himself to be genuinely loyal and supportive to his friends. Like many people he has had to form a support system outside of the home, mostly with fellow self-helpers. One of his most important relationships is with his Al-Anon sponsor Julia (Laura San Giacomo), who encourages him through his personal and professional setbacks. He does the same for her, particularly during a scene where she reveals her mistrust of men and how it relates to the father figures in her life. He reassures her and says, “From now on, when you need one, I’ll be your dad, okay? You know, when you’re not being my mom.”
You also see the best and worst of Stuart through his work situation. He repeatedly goes toe to toe with his antagonistic boss Roz Weinstock (Camille Saviola- amazing), who absolutely despises him and keeps trying to sabotage his career. She seems to be the only person who can push him into fits of anger, which culminates with some of the most funny- yet pathetic- insult flinging in cinema history.
It’s also worth noting that he ends up unintentionally snatching not one, but two receptionists away from her employment. One of them (Julia Sweeney) appears on the first episode of his new show, exploring her maternal abandonment issues. It’s pretty therapeutic, which is what Stuart does best.
In the third act Stuart’s family issues become more serious. This isn’t typical for a comedy, but like Stuart the story is sticking to the truth. Dysfunction might be funny when it isn’t happening to you, but in real life there are solutions. Family opts for those solutions, which are portrayed realistically in all of their upheaval and messiness.
Some good comes out of it. Stuart’s relationship with his brother Donnie (Vincent D’Onofrio) goes through some major changes. In the end Donnie is the only one who recognizes what Stuart has been trying to do and that there are different ways to be strong while facing the worst. As usual D’Onofrio nails the part, both comedically and dramatically, because let’s face it- I don’t think Vincent D’Onofrio has never turned in a half-assed performance in his life. He manages to keep it funny, but also makes it real.
Upon its release Family proved to be a case of nice guys finishing last. It opened against Bad Boys, Dumb and Dumber, While You Were Sleeping and Pauly Shore’s Jury Duty. It didn’t take and was quickly deemed a commercial and critical failure. Franken admitted that this depressed him for years, but he stands by his work. Looking back, both he and producer Trevor Albert mention that it should have been marketed toward people in 12-step programs.
I would say it works for anyone who comes from a messed up background or has struggled with going home. The opening credits are a montage of anonymous family photos, making things pretty universal. Besides, I’ve never met a family without its issues.
The tagline for the film doesn’t forget this: “You’ll laugh because it isn’t your family. You’ll cry because it is.”
Stuart Saves His Family is currently available on Netflix.