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Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people. —Angela Carter, Wise Children

In the wittily apposite advertising graphic for Stuart Saves His Family, the pudgy, insecure tele-guru, an unlikely Atlas with legs akimbo, struggles to support our planet. But, as Ogden Nash observed, “Man is so little and the world so vast” that we know his heroic efforts are unlikely to succeed.

Stuart Smalley, Al Franken’s endearing, terminally vulnerable Saturday Night Live character, is an extraordinary comic invention, hilarious and pathetic in equal measure. “A caring nurturer and a member of several 12-step therapy programs, but not a licensed therapist,” he dispenses healing insights to the walking wounded on his Chicago community-access cable show, Daily Affirmation. But Stuart’s self-esteem is so fragile that most of the would-be healer’s broadcasts end with him melting into a puddle of anxiety. Traditionally, screen comic characters—the Little Tramp, Stan and Ollie, the Three Stooges, Inspector Clouseau—have based their humor on physical discomfort, sons of the first man to slip on a banana peel. What makes Franken’s Stuart so distinctively contemporary is that his comedy is built on psychological anguish and spiritual distress. We have to laugh at this plucky dork to keep from weeping for him and, perhaps, for ourselves.

SNL producer Lorne Michaels’ previous attempts to bring the show’s sketch characters to the big screen—the “Wayne’s World” features, Coneheads—have been ruinously miscalculated, saddled with hackneyed plots and hack directors, padded to feature length with intrusive musical numbers and pointless cameo appearances by no-talents. This time Michaels has finally got it right, entrusting the screenplay to Franken (who adapted his book I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!) and hiring Harold Ramis to direct.

After a long run of commercially successful but artistically undistinguished efforts (he directed Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation, and co-wrote the “Ghostbusters” movies), Ramis scored with his last picture, Groundhog Day, which despite the annoying presence of Andie MacDowell, is arguably the cleverest Hollywood comedy of the ’90s. Avoiding irrelevant sideshows, Ramis keeps Stuart focused on Franken’s irresistible character, expanding and enriching what we know about him before entering the theater.

As expected, the film begins with a catastrophe. Stuart learns that his “rage-oholic” station manager has bumped Daily Affirmation from its noon timeslot to 2:45 a.m., following a hair-replacement infomercial. Crushed, Stuart sinks into a “shame spiral” and retreats to his apartment where, ignoring the entreaties of his support group sponsors, he gorges on Fig Newtons and dejection. More bad news follows. The death of his Aunt Paula forces him to return to Minneapolis and his chronically dysfunctional family—bullying, alcoholic father (Harris Yulin); passive-aggressive mother (Shirley Knight); drifting, substance-abusing brother (Vincent D’Onofrio); and food-addict, serial-bride sister (Lesley Boone). The remainder of the movie chronicles Stuart’s efforts to resurrect his television career in Chicago while dealing with his out-of-control family back home.

From the ironic credit sequence—formal photographs of blissful family reunions underscored by a fatuous cha-cha version of “I Want to Be Happy”—Ramis and Franken strike a delicate balance of humor and angst that they deftly manage to sustain almost to the fadeout. (Only the final sequence, an unconvincingly jolly Christmas party attended by veterans of a panoply of support groups, tips the film’s equilibrium.) Franken’s screenplay sparkles with sly jokes. We first see Stuart resplendently garbed in a brightly colored sweater knitted by a recovering sex addict who “needed something to do with her hands.” A Holocaust survivor in Skokie complains to Stuart’s station manager that he even prefers The Skinhead Hour to the touchy-feely Daily Affirmation. As each new humiliation settles on Stuart’s frail shoulders, he seeks comfort from “stinkin’ thinkin’ ” in therapeutic maxims—“Only you can help you” and “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt”—but the words turn to ashes on his lips.

With his pound-puppy eyes, cherubic cheeks, and mobile, squeeze-vinyl coin-purse mouth, Franken vividly expresses all of Stuart’s mood shifts. He knows this absurd, all-too-human character in his very bones. Grizzled Yulin is obtusely macho and thoroughly destructive, a case study of abusive paternalism. Knight makes less of the trounced mother, bringing mostly unintended levels of pathos to her role. (It’s profoundly unsettling to witness this once-patrician beauty, the intense star of Petulia and The Rain People, almost unrecognizably encased in fat. What private demons could have driven her to such a state?) D’Onofrio and Boone are lively as Stuart’s victimized siblings, and Laura San Giacomo, with her chipmunk smile and caterpillar eyebrows, is warmly supportive as Julia, Stuart’s Al-Anon sponsor. Ramis and Franken toy with, but wisely resist, establishing a romantic relationship for this pair. The androgynous Stuart, who lisps, apparently dyes his hair, and is referred to as “Liberace” by his taunting father, is much too self-conscious about his emotions and recently streamlined body (with the help of Overeaters Anonymous, he’s lost 127 pounds) to risk such intimacy with another being. We can only guess at what direction, if any, his sexuality would take in the unlikely event that he ever conquered his insecurity and therapy-group dependency.

In a 1980 letter, François Truffaut wrote: “When humor can be made to alternate with melancholy, one has a success, but when the same things are funny and melancholic at the same time, that’s just wonderful.” Given the current vogue for dumb comedy, with Jim Carrey and Pauly Shore major box-office draws and desperate, childish buffoons like Adam Sandler and Chris Farley nosing out Franken and his brainy colleagues for airtime on the virtually unwatchable SNL, the intelligent, emotionally complex humor of Stuart Saves His Family is likely to be a hard sell. (There were only five other ticket-holders at the opening-day matinee I attended.) More selective moviegoers may understandably feel too burned by previous SNL spinoffs to risk ponying up for yet another. All I can do is encourage you to give it a chance. I’ll be very surprised if you don’t enjoy it and, if that’s the case, will begin harboring doubts about my competence and reliability as a movie reviewer. But then, as Stuart would surely be the first to reassure me, “That’s OK.”