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Doggone It, ‘Stuart’ Isn’t Good Enough

Jay Carr The Boston Globe

“Stuart Saves His Family”

Location: North Division cinemas

Credits: Directed by Harold Ramis, starring Al Franken, Laura San Giacomo, Vincent D’Onofrio, Shirley Knight

Running time: 98 minutes

Rating: PG-13

It’s not good enough, it’s not smart enough, but doggone it, people will like “Stuart Saves His Family.”

Well, maybe not all people, but certainly “Saturday Night Live” fans. Well, maybe not all SNL fans, but certainly a lot of the ones in the habit of laughing at Al Franken’s sendups of New Age psychobabble guru Stuart Smalley. There’s not much spin in this big-screen spinoff, but that’s OK. More than ever, Stuart looks like Elton John, sounds like Liberace and constantly threatens to be upstaged - if not replaced - by his big, loose, blue sweater. Dispensing what Stuart calls his daily affirmations on cable TV, Franken looks simultaneously moronic and beatific.

The joke, of course, is that while Stuart is blissfully validating everything in sight with a nonstop flow of mellowspeak, he’s a mess. Not surprisingly, it’s his dysfunctional family back in Minneapolis that has made him a wreck who can’t get through the day without being propped up by his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, his debt counselor, his Overeaters Anonymous overseer or the dozen or so others on his support-group roster. Franken is at his funniest when he allows just the right amount of desperation to seep through as Stuart spouts nerdy little cure-all slogans like “Trace it, face it, erase it” or “It’s easier to put on slippers than to carpet the world.”

The movie’s problem is that the script, being deficient both in imagination and satiric edge, becomes what Franken is satirizing - namely, a big shapeless gob of soft-centered sentimentality. We don’t need much persuading that Stuart’s self-esteem and eating problems originated in the poisonous bosom of his family, where his alcoholic father nicknames him Waste of Space and his defeatist mother thinks she’s cushioning inevitable disappointment by telling him all his life that he’s bound to fail. Stuart’s chief counselor (Laura San Giacomo, in a role that wastes her) is at least consistent. Declaring that her family has damaged her, she avoids it. But not Stuart.

The trouble with Stuart’s family is not that they’re losers, but that they’re boring losers. The tipoff that they have not inspired a gush of comic invention is that the film, in desperation, inserts a sequence of the family on vacation in Hollywood. Their quarrels run the gamut from tedious to vacuous as the script mistakenly fails to keep them at the level of a horror story. Instead, it goes all touchy-feely and just turns sloppy.

Given the material’s nothingness, you can’t help admiring the cast’s dogged professionalism, especially Shirley Knight as Stuart’s mother, the unsung and always excellent Vincent D’Onofrio as his mixed-up older brother and Julia Sweeney as the world’s most apologetic woman. Franken’s feel-good inanities make you laugh, but the insipid script in which they’re embedded lacks the courage of its satiric convictions.

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