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Frequent moviegoers tend to develop pretty sharp instincts about what to see and what to avoid, and they're often right. As soon as one sees that a feature vehicle has been made for a popular sketch character from Saturday Night Live, the review starts writing itself in one's head--"What's funny for five minutes on TV can't be stretched out for an hour and a half on the big screen," etc.

So it's doubtful that Stuart Saves His Family ever had a chance, commercially speaking. Before the first scene had been shot, it was preordained that most of the critics would hate it, ignore it or patronize it. Even if they didn't, the public probably wouldn't go, anyway. By the time you read this, the film will likely be well on its way to its dollar-theatre premiäre. But just for the record, Stuart Saves His Family is the most daring and least one-joke of all the SNL movie spin-offs so far. The hero, for those of you who, not injudiciously, have given up on SNL in the last few years, is Stuart Smalley, the "caring nurturer" and 12-step veteran played by writer Al Franken on the "Daily Affirmation" sketches. This mild-mannered, lisping, apparently sexless little fellow hosts a public-access show intended to cheer up and encourage the dysfunctional, though it usually ends with Stuart feeling he's failed and lapsing into a depressed funk himself. He's one of the few endearing characters that SNL has left in its repertory. The movie takes Stuart from Chicago, where his show and his network of 12-step sponsors are, home to Minneapolis, in an effort to solve several crises in his family. Stuart is such a broadly caricatured figure--sleeveless sweaters, overcoifed sandy hair, soothingly earnest voice that always seems to be on the gurgly edge of a sob--that he provides a sort of Brechtian distance on the relative realism with which his family is depicted. It's got an alcoholic father, "enabling" mother, unemployed pothead brother and overweight sister.

Thus the material is touching in ways it's often not when handled dramatically. The film is so quiet and low-key that it would be easy to miss how deftly the script, which Franken wrote, and the direction, by Harold Ramis of Groundhog Day, manage the uneasy mixture of misery and mirth. Stuart emerges as a true comic hero--his quest to conquer his own foibles is exhilarating.

The performances are strong, but the standouts are Laura San Giacomo as Stuart's best friend, who gets to deliver a short but powerful monologue about meeting her biological father for the first time, and Harris Yulin and--especially--Shirley Knight, who, as Stuart's folks, are deeply funny and horrifying. The small but distinctive triumph of Stuart Saves His Family is that it shows how both responses are possible at the same time.

Stuart Saves His Family: Directed by Harold Ramis; with Al Franken, Laura San Giacomo, Harris Yulin, Shirley Knight and Lesley Boone. Rated

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