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We live in an age of recovery. There’s the economic recovery, of course—it’s been trudging along for a half-decade now, though it hardly feels like it. More than any time in history, we seem collectively dedicated to identifying and repairing all the ways our familial and childhood traumas twist our everyday lives. Many of us are—or know people who are—recovering from illness (alcoholism, drug addiction, cancer) or struggling with compulsions, like gambling or hoarding Pumpkin Spice Oreos every fall. What do we know about recovery? It tends to take forever, and as anyone who has blown through their resolutions by MLK Day can attest, it rarely moves in a forward direction. Also, recovery is hilariously funny, though it never seems that way at the time.
So it is for the greatest American movie about the recovery movement, Stuart Saves His Family, a film so phenomenally unpopular when it came out that it ranks on the bottom of the list of unprofitable movies based on SNL sketches (truly a remarkable accomplishment). But it’s also the most artistically ambitious film on that list, and certainly the darkest and most intensely thematic.
Indeed, is it possible to make a domestic drama out of a reoccurring character on a late-night variety show? Because while Stuart Saves His Family is both uproariously and sublimely funny, it is also an incredibly truthful and unflinching portrait of American family life. It’s a terrifically odd mash-up more befitting an indie: imagine the searing honesty of Ordinary People crossed with the broad comedy and tenderness of A Christmas Story.
There’s also no more perfect movie for New Year’s, that time when we tend to baptize ourselves with affirmations and personal pep talks. For starters, it’s an ideal remedy for the PTSD that comes with surviving that three-month period where our families and the world are pressed hard against our noses, whether we asked for it or not. Or as Stuart puts it, “Alcoholism is a three-fold disease—Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.”
For Stuart, a sexually ambiguous recovering overeater and “rageaholic” with a failing Chicago cable access show, family is the original sin. His father is an alcoholic who comes from a long line of men who get drunk and fall off roofs; his mother is a cowering, ham-glazing enabler; his brother is a shiftless drunk and pothead; his sister is overweight and prone to abusive husbands. When a beloved aunt dies, Stuart is pulled into the spiral of their collective unexamined pain. Are his army of sponsors and storehouse of aphorisms (“It’s easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole world”) enough to keep his delicate progress from imploding?
The film marked the first and last starring role for Al Franken, and guided by his own script and his director, the late Harold Ramis, he’s wonderful in the part. His Stuart is never a topic of derision, and while the portrayal can be broad and clownish, it is also deep and knowing. It was the aching sincerity of the character—as well as the film’s dark and untidy ending—that lead to its unjust undoing. But oh what a glorious failure: if Stuart Saves His Family had not flopped, Franken would not have written Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot; he would not have gotten into political radio; he would not have then segued into politics, beating Norm Coleman for the U.S. Senate seat from Minnesota by 255 votes in 2008, a job Franken has held onto ever since. As something Stuart should have said but never did, Sometimes setbacks are triumphs in disguise.
It is also worth noting that for people who are in recovery, Stuart Saves His Family provides the perfect pep talk. It’s a necessary reminder that the mission you’ve undertaken is noble, necessary, difficult, absurd, and really very funny. As for New Year’s, it’s also helpful to remember something Stuart actually did say: “When it comes to partying, nobody gets down like people in recovery.”