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SEPTEMBER 8, 1997: 


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***1/2 Stuart Saves His Family (1995,Directed by Harold Ramis) -- Movies based on Saturday Night Livecomedy sketches are not exactly known for their ability to amuseor entertain. Stuart Saves His Family is a pleasingexception to the dreadful rule.

This film stars Al Franken as StuartSmalley -- the self-help guru who is enrolled in more 12-stepprograms than Drew Barrymore. His "personal crisis"begins when his cable access show, Daily Affirmations WithStuart Smalley, is cancelled by his nemesis Roz Weinstock,who Stuart declares a "grandiose, shame-based, over-eater,sick in her own disease." Quickly thereafter, Stuart's auntPaula dies, and he is compelled to go home to his dysfunctionalclan, complete with alcoholic brother and father, co-dependentmother, and overeating sister. (As Stuart tells his journal,"As I am sucked inexorably toward home, I am choosing thistime to come to terms with some of my `family of origin' issues.As they say in Al-Anon: Trace it. Face it. And Erase it.")

This movie relies on a witty string ofintellectual jokes about self-help and interpersonal dynamics.(Though Stuart, always sporting an atrocious sweater andridiculous grin, has an appearance that begs for laughter beforethe lines leave his mouth.) While his family never ceases toamuse, the film also features some heavier scenes that trulyaddress some of the problems that are so frequently joked aboutin the movie. As the film's poster suggests, "You laughbecause it's not your family; you'll cry because it is."

His pal-cum-Al-Anon-sponsor Julia (LauraSan Giacomo) does delightful job playing Stuart's esteem booster.Vincent D'Onofrio, who recently played an alien in Men InBlack, is simply hilarious as Stuart's underachieving brotherDonny, who -- in a loving show of support -- xeroxes Stuart'sjournal and passes out pages to implicated family members atinopportune moments. Julia Sweeney also provides a satisfyingcameo as a receptionist who has less self-esteem than astreet-grate.

Though the film is no Citizen Kane,it's not The Coneheads, either. The jokes require carefulattention to detail, but the focused viewer is rewardedgenerously. No car-crashes or explosions (unless you count theFourth of July celebration during which Stuart declares emotionalindependence from his family), just a lot of well-written spoofsof group hugs and positive thinking. The acting is good enough,the writing is smart enough, and gosh darn it... well, you knowthe rest.

-- Elizabeth Lemond

*** TheStratton Story (1949, directed by Sam Wood) -- "You haveto decide; it's either his leg or his life," the doctortells the distraught wife. "But, Doctor, you don'tunderstand," she cries. "He's a baseball player. Hislegs are his life!"

That pretty much sums up The StrattonStory, the true account of Monty Stratton, a professionalbaseball pitcher who shoots his right leg off one day in ahunting accident and tries to overcome the handicap. Stratton isplayed by Jimmy Stewart, and they couldn't have cast a bettercountry-bumpkin of a pitcher, with his lanky frame and endearing"aw-shucks" shyness. Most of the film focuses on hisrags-to-riches journey from his early days with the WagnerWildcats in Texas (where he earns three bucks a game) to seasonsof glory with the Chicago White Sox. Along the way, Strattonpicks up a perky wife, Ethel from Omaha (June Allison), and ashrewd but good-hearted coach/manager (Frank Morgan, better knownas the Wizard himself in The Wizard of Oz). It'srough going at first, and Stratton gets shipped back to the minorleagues for a year or so before finally making it big with theSox. But he manages to buy a fine car, rebuild his mother'sramshackle farmhouse back in Texas, even have himself a Junior.

Then he stumbles over a shotgun whilehunting rabbits, and everything turns black. Stratton becomes arecluse, sulks in his chair, refuses to wear his artificial leg,even taunts the baby when he first learns to walk: "What'sthe big deal? He's got two legs, hasn't he?" Slowly,however, Ethel pulls him out of it, first by getting him to pitchbaseballs into a bucket set up against the barn, and Strattoneven surprises them all by persuading the Western All-Stars tolet him pitch again in an exhibition game. By the ninth inning,he's learned that -- win or lose, two legs or no legs -- it isindeed a wonderful life. Not exactly a surprise ending, but whatdid you expect from a Jimmy Stewart movie? -- Michael Finger

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