(Air Date: Week Of 12/4/96)
The holiday season ain't for everyone. For most of my adult life, I try to go underground every year at this time, doing stuff that has nothing whatever to do with family values. Last year, a movie was released that captured the essence of why some of us don't go home anymore. It broke no records at the box office, but "Stuart Saves His Family" has become one of my all-time favourite guilty pleasures.
Based on the character created by Al Franken, Stuart Smalley tries to make peace with his past, but, with the nest intentions in the world, fails over and over again. His best friend is Julia, (played by Laura San Giacomo at her most charming) who tries to tell him, "We'd all like to go home and save our families, but we can't. We're just not that powerful.") The lure, not to mention the guilt, of old rituals is too strong and Stuart dutifully involves himself in every family crisis.
Dad (Harris Yulin) is an alcoholic. Mom (Shirley Knight) cooks her way through crises and sister Jodie (Lesley Boone) eats her way through same. Best of all is brother Donnie (the wonderful Vincent D'Onofrio) who appears to have been stoned since childhood. Stuart belongs to several 12 step programs to sustain himself through a weight loss program, his job as a waiter and his television program on a cable access station. But despite his best efforts, (AND Julia's AND his other 12-step sponsors) Stuart throws himself into one deep depression after another whenever he encounters his family.
The interesting thing about Dad, Mom, Jodie and Donnie is that, underneath all their problems, they're fairly likable people. In fact, it is Stuart's appreciation of their better qualities that makes detachment so difficult for him. Franken and a terrific cast, especially D'Onofrio who is right on target as the perpetually self-deceptive stoner, are hilarious as the quintessential screwed-up American family. It is the only film of its type that I know: it doesn't merely critique an easy target, it comforts us with a genuine ray of hope as well. So if you wince at the thought of sniping sotto voce at an equally wincing sibling at a holiday dinner table, try watching "Stuart Saves His Family" first. Even if it doesn't take the edge off the sniping, it offers ninety minutes worth of laughter plus desperately needed ironic counterpoint for a season that is far from jolly for everyone.
Copyright 1996 Monica Sullivan
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