In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1995 and six from 1985. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Saturday Night Live recently commandeered a nightlong block of primetime NBC real estate for its all-star 40th-anniverary blowout. The program alternated between bits of feverishly funny brilliance and fizzled, laughter-deprived bores — much like the warhorse series it celebrated and the 11 films featuring SNL characters.
Those movies stretch across four separate decades*, too, although impresario Lorne Michaels probably won’t be celebrating (most of) them anytime soon. Plus, their time-span asterisk sticks out as much as the celery stalk MacGruber jammed up his anus as a distraction in his movie. Barely scraping this decade in 2010, MacGruber was the first SNL movie since 2000’s The Ladies Man; given its measly $8 million gross, it’s probably the last. In the YouTube era, who needs 90 uninterrupted minutes of an SNL character when they can summon the best bits on a whim? Whatever cultural cachet the SNL movie once had is dead. But who knows? Maybe Michaels will try it one more time with movies about Baby Boss or Astronaut Kirby.
Most people would say even victims of extreme firework accidents could count the good SNL movies on their remaining fingers — The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World. There are arguments of varying effectiveness to make for Coneheads, Wayne’s World 2, Superstar and even A Night at the Roxbury, but those are other columns. This one concerns an SNL movie that, with admirably torpedo-damning bravery, chooses warm empathy over wacky entropy that often pads five-minute ideas into feature-length movies. An SNL movie that dares to go beyond poking fun at its lead character. An SNL movie that draws its spark from witty, weary and well-observed human comedy. An SNL movie you likely forgot about.
Among the many maligned SNL movies, Stuart Saves His Family’s slings and arrows were the most unfair. Circa 1995, this big-screen story of Stuart Smalley — the lisping, effeminate, self-proclaimed self-help guru and host of public-access TV series Daily Affirmations — disappeared from 400 theaters almost as quickly as it arrived in them. Were it not for 1994’s It’s Pat, this would be the most ignominious SNL-movie earner ever, reaping less than $1 million.
With his bleached-blond coif, powder-blue cardigans and arsenal of aphorisms, Stuart Smalley sent up the early-’90s psychobabble craze. He also became Al Franken’s signature SNL character during the writer-performer’s second stint on the show, from 1985 to 1995. Although not a licensed therapist, Stuart attempted to help “identity-protected” guest hosts like “Michael J.” sort out their problems.
Of his many sayings, Stuart’s calling card was what he would utter to his own reflection to start every skit: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” (Franken also penned a parody novel with that title in 1992.)
Franken wasn’t long for SNL after the film flopped; losing the “Weekend Update” spot to Norm McDonald allegedly hastened his departure. But before Franken left, he tried to own his feelings (as Stuart would say) about the failure in character, saying “You didn’t want ‘funny’ and ‘poignant.’ You wanted Dumb and Dumber … and dumber … and dumber!”
People undoubtedly expected some sort of cheerfully asinine Stuart Smalley road-trip movie, overstuffed with cameos by SNL bit players and C-list celebrities in on the joke. A scene in which Stuart sprints through downtown Chicago, arms akimbo, with a stolen videocassette is as “goofy” as the movie ever gets, and even the resolution of that scene is rooted in his attempt to stay on an emotional straight-and-narrow. Stuart also finds himself in a bar fight and, at one point, is forced to record 20 episodes of his show in a marathon session. In a broader, baser film, he would slap and crawl his way out of the fight and drown in flopsweat on set. Frankly, the movie finds character-illuminating ways to extricate Stuart from both of these stock situations. And its main plot sends him back to his boyhood home, where a rat’s nest of stress triggers with whom he shares a bloodline awaits.
By forcing Stuart to deal with his fractured family, the film doesn’t just catapult him out of his comfort zone, it upends the entire expectations of the SNL subgenre. That’s because Franken (who also wrote the script) and the late director Harold Ramis don’t clumsily pursue cheap, cruel laughter. Hell, after the second act, they rarely go for laughter at all. The film’s climax concerns an intervention for Stuart’s drunken dad, who greets this with all the enthusiasm he would an empty handle-jug of whiskey. While that sounds as appealing as, say, Leon Phelps harnessing his harassment at sensitivity training, Franken and Ramis establish an honest sting to the Smalleys’ squabbles that makes it work. In that way, it’s a drama in Stuart’s comically oversized clothing.
The film is far from a humorless about-face, though, filled with piercing and disarming quips like “My father grew up in the Great Depression … his mother’s” or “You were drunk at all of my weddings.” Franken also shrewdly and satirically flattens Stuart’s simpering self-help sayings without rendering one-dimensional the man who utters them. That’s because the script peels back platitudes — like “I’m should-ing all over myself,” “Trace it, face it and erase it,” “That’s stinkin’ thinkin’ ” or “It’s easier to put on slippers than to carpet the entire world” — to reveal the kernels of hard truth that can truly push us forward. And it’s not just for the addicts, bullies and pushovers in the Smalley family but for Stuart’s own realization that he can’t save everybody and shouldn’t waste his life trying. No one is let off the hook easily, least of all audiences anticipating the usual simple, silly and safe SNL movie.
Stuart is also an interesting anomaly in Ramis’s storied filmography, largely built on concept-comedy craftsmanship (Multiplicity, Analyze This). Given that this arrived just after Ramis’s critically acclaimed breakthrough in Groundhog Day, it’s not unreasonable to think he sought room to grow further with Stuart. The closing credits break out most of the cast by the scenes in which they appear. While Ramis handily brings the funny, he also achieves a bizarrely stage-like intimacy and, even on a clear budget, approximates a distinctive visual style; a black-and-white dream of Stuart’s feels strangely stark and haunting. It’s like Mike Nichols with training wheels attached.
The story consists of two threads: Stuart losing, and trying to regain, his show; and the money he and his cash-strapped clan stand to inherit from selling the home of late Aunt Paula, of whom Stuart has far rosier memories than his immediate family. Sticking points on both are perfect. The schadenfreude of reading Stuart’s viewer hate mail nearly brings Roz Weinstock (Camille Saviola), the homely harridan who runs the TV station, to orgasm. (One, a Holocaust survivor, prefers the station’s skinhead programming to Stuart.) And the family payout is complicated by the very construction of Paula’s house, which juts out just a few feet too far onto the neighbor’s property and for which he asks an ever-escalating easement payment.
This easement is a beautiful metaphor for the inability of any Smalley family member to respect someone else’s space. Mr. Smalley, played by evergreen character actor Harris Yulin, would rather not talk. But when his mouth opens, an invasive beratement is sure to emanate. From childhood flashbacks to present-day miseries, Yulin believably morphs from a confident paterfamilias to a shriveled, diminished cur. Meanwhile, Mrs. Smalley (Shirley Knight) is quick to cultivate the disappointment she’s endured all these years into a culture the entire family can share. She’s the paragon of capitulation, cowed from seeing her every independent thought that may have escaped hit a brick wall, unbelted and at top speed.
Stuart’s siblings aren’t any better. His brother, Donnie (Vincent D’Onofrio), is an unemployed, dope-smoking layabout who fancies himself his dad’s lieutenant in the royal order of Smalley assholes — always a step behind Pops and ready to throw down at the smallest provocation. Meanwhile, sister Jodie (Lesley Boone) has eaten her feelings through several marriages and escalates even the slightest incident with endlessly histrionic phone calls. And all of this is before Cousin Ray (Joe Flaherty), who initiates a feud over Paula’s grave that would have the Hatfields and McCoys tipping rifles in respect.
If only by virtue of having physically escaped their clutches, Stuart is the best-adjusted Smalley. He’s shed the weight that long defined him, although his lakeside-sashay exercise routine to Ethel Merman may actually be lowering his heart rate. He also gets some thank-yous from viewers whom he’s helped, and he avoids alcohol altogether lest it trigger The Gene. Yet Stuart’s clothing isn’t the only excessively baggy thing in his closet; his spirit remains shackled in his family’s suburban hell.
Stuart is quick to point out flaws in everyone but himself, and he often confuses helping out with passive-aggressive lashing. Forced to wait tables, he foists his “expertise” on diners, advising them to avoid fatty foods or booze. The slightest setbacks send him racing into a cocoon of Chips Ahoy and Fig Newtons. He regularly tries to outrank others on a hierarchy of emotional problems. And he’s so eager to counter the silence that ruled his childhood home that by talking to fill space, he often inadvertently offends. In swaddling people, Stuart often swallows them up.
He largely confines his contempt for his family to his journal, but that makes it no less corrosive. And as they, and he, complicate the successful sale of Aunt Paula’s home, the movie courageously considers that there might be flecks of helpful advice — no matter how microscopic — in the needling conversations the Smalleys initiate.
“Is that one of those little words you use on your TV show?” Mrs. Smalley scolds when Stuart drops a saying on her, sensing it as the smokescreen Stuart hides behind. Stuart may have never hit the bottle, but Mr. Smalley correctly sizes him up as an addict to 12-step programs. And Donnie is on point when he says the Smalleys need to start defending themselves more often; it just shouldn’t encompass wild, drunken swings at cops. (D’Onofrio is a delight here as a guy who’s not altogether lost, just derailed. A bit where he and Franken cackle in commiseration is a fine, unaffected breakthrough, and D’Onofrio’s instinct for intensity propels the last act.)
Franken wisely surrounds himself with dramatically sound actors; Laura San Giacomo also has a nice turn as Stuart’s sponsor, who shares her own miseries in an unexpectedly sharp moment at a café. But the star is no slouch, either, at creating someone to root for beyond the perfunctory protagonist demands. We sense Stuart becoming a better person as he slowly pushes down his pathological need to clean up everyone’s messes, and we see the efforts to revive his show improve as he ditches his self-love for the man in the mirror to more directly address his faults. Stuart Saves His Family may not be the best SNL movie, but by tuning in so sharply to Stuart Smalley’s turmoil, he is easily the best SNL movie character.
Franken and Ramis also eke out a realistically downbeat, but not depressing, ending, as Stuart truly empowers himself and some, but not all, of his family. Neither he nor the movie writes them off as not worth saving; it just accepts that you must give up the dream on “a Norman Rockwell anything.”
Couched in such caricatures, everything seems easier — especially comedy. Stuart Saves His Family attempts something tougher in a fully fleshed-out portrait of seriocomic misery. In a subgenre littered with SNL-inspired films worth forgetting, here is one that’s truly good enough and smart enough.