Plot: What’s it about?
Stuart Smalley (Al Franken) has just learned that his self help television show has been canceled, thanks to his sadistic boss, Roz. He soon falls into a shame spiral, but support from his friend Julia (Laura San Giacomo) has kept him on track, until a phone call from home shatters his sense of stability. He soon finds himself on the road back home, where his alcoholic father (Harris Yulin), unsympathetic mother (Shirley Knight), and other dysfunctional family members await his arrival. His aunt has just passed away and behind the grief, lies more family problems, from a dispute over a grave to his father punching a police officer. The funeral is of course, a disaster and Stuart returns home, but soon enough, another crisis emerges and now he must go back once again. His called upon to settle a property dispute with his deceased aunt’s neighbor, who wants a lot of cash for an easement. But this surface issue is just the start of Stuart’s woes, as he soon becomes wrapped up in all sorts of family politics, which is what he wanted to avoid more than anything. Can Stuart save his family from this massive mess, all while trying to keep his own sanity, as well as finding a new venue for his television show?
“That attitude of gratitude…it ain’t just a platitude.”
As you might know, this film was based on the skit from Saturday Night Live, in which Al Franken gave us all sorts of nuggets of self help genius. The films based on SNL sketches haven’t always done well at the box office and in that tradition, Stuart Saves His Family was not a financial success. I had a lot of doubt about this one, but I loved the skits and as such, I hoped that the movie version would pan out well. In the end, it surpassed all of my expectations and then some, becoming one of my favorite dark comedies of all time. Yes, I said dark comedy and that wasn’t a mistake in my typing, I assure you. The skits on television had a tragic undertone to them, thanks to the Stuart character, but in this feature film edition, those traits are expanded upon a hundred times over. The film is loaded with humor of course, but it is not the usual slapstick or dialogue stuff, not by a long shot indeed. Stuart Saves His Family uses themes we can all relate to, but then twists and turns them into much darker ones, which kind of forces us to laugh at times. In other words, don’t expect to be brightened up by this flick, at least not most of the time, as this is very much a dark comedy, in every sense of the phrase.
“Is that one of those funny words you use on your little television program?”
As you can tell from the above, I am a huge fan of this movie and it never fails to entertain me. I think it captures the essence of the self help era to utter perfection, to an extent that it never ceases to amaze me. I’ve seen other films that try to have the edge shown here, but it usually seems so forced or fake, which is never the case with this flick. But since Al Franken had such a grasp of the movement and those involved in it, Stuart Saves His Family seems very natural and realistic, even in the smallest of details. I can see how it might have been easier to go with some lighter humor at times, but the film keeps the dark edge intact and that is what makes it all work so well. The characters work so well, especially Stuart and his world of catch phrases and what not. The terms here are part real world stuff and part fictional terms, but all seem very real and in place here, very cool indeed. I know a lot of you will disagree with me, but I place this film in the top ten flicks of the 1990s, due to the dead on satire of the self help movement. I give this film my highest recommendation and even though the disc offers minimal supplements, the flick itself is well worth the price. And in the end, remember that you are a worthy human being and if you think otherwise, it’s just stinkin’ thinkin’.
“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” The main force behind this film is Al Franken, who not only served as the lead, but also wrote the screenplay and the book it was based on. As an actor, Franken handles the role much like he did on the skits, but is able to flesh it out a little more also. Franken takes Stuart from in front of the mirror and into the real world well, which is something I had doubts about. After all, Stuart’s family and friends have such an impact on him, I knew it would take some good writing to create a background for him and then bring it all to life. But Franken delivers on all counts, writing some hilarious and appropriate situations for Stuart to enter into, then panic and try to deal with. As I mentioned before, I am glad Franken kept the darker tone present, as I am sure it would have been simpler to pen some lighter stuff at times. Franken has always had the gift for pop culture & politics and it shows here, as his work captures a time period to sheer perfection. If you want to see more work with Franken involved, I recommend checking out some older episodes of SNL, as well as his smaller roles in such films as Trading Places, The Rutles, and When A Man Loves A Woman.
“That was not a quality ham.”
In addition to Franken, this film features a very talented supporting cast and all of them add to the film’s impact. The stand out work comes from Vincent D’Onofrio (Men In Black, Full Metal Jacket), who plays Stuart’s brother with a terrific, but often tragic comedic sense. He seems very natural within his role and never falters, even when his character undertakes some serious changes. But then again, I expected as much, since D’Onofrio has proven himself time and time again. The cast here also includes Harris Yulin (Scarface, The Hurricane), Shirley Knight (As Good As It Gets, Color of Night), Lesley Boone (I’ll Be Home For Christmas), John Link Graney (Speechless), Laura San Giacomo (Pretty Woman, Stephen King’s The Stand), Julia Sweeney (Whatever It Takes, Pulp Fiction), and Joe Flaherty (Detroit Rock City, Happy Gilmore). The director of this film was Harold Ramis, who also helmed such films as Caddyshack, Bedazzled, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Analyze This, Multiplicity, and Groundhog Day.
Video: How does it look?
Stuart Saves His Family is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. I always dread Paramount catalog titles, but this one turned out better than most, even if still not as impressive I would have liked. The print looks clean and shows minimal grain, which is a relief and allows the other elements to shine through. The colors look warm and bright, with no evidence of errors I could see, while flesh tones seem normal as well. No issues with contrast either, as detail is strong throughout and black levels are well balanced also. A few small problems lower the score a shade, but this is still a much better transfer than I expected.
Audio: How does it sound?
The included Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a good one, although the material doesn’t allow for much presence, in terms of surround channels. A few instances provide some added spice at times, but the musical score is the most active element in the end. But since this is how the material should be presented, I have no real complaints to make here. The dialogue is smooth, crisp, and always at a proper volume, which is what matters in a vocal driven mix like this one. This disc also includes 2.0 surround tracks in English and French, as well as English subtitles.
Supplements: What are the extras?
This disc includes the film’s theatrical trailer but no other bonus materials.