Death to Smoochy

Death to Smoochy
Director: Danny DeVito
Screenplay: Adam Resnick
Stars: Robin Williams (Rainbow Randolph), Edward Norton (Sheldon Mopes), Danny DeVito (Burke), Jon Stewart (M. Frank Stokes), Catherine Keener (Nora Wells), Harvey Fierstein (Merv Green), Pam Ferris (Tommy Cotter), Michael Rispoli (Spinner Dunn)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2002
Country: USA

Death to Smoochy is a gale force of energy and creativity in the service of a lame idea. Simply put, if you've ever watched The Simpsons and laughed at the none-too-subtle social satire of that show's children's entertainer Krusty the Klown and his depraved backstage lifestyle (which include heavy drinking and smoking, gambling problems, and a few ties to organized crime), then you've seen most of what Death to Smoochy has to offer in a much sharper and shorter format.

In a nutshell, the story is about media corruption in children's television. If that comes as a surprise to anyone, welcome back from whatever cave you've been in. Pointing out that the world of television production—be it for adults or wee ones—is depraved, greedy, and ethically challenged is obvious to the point of absurdity. Thus, to save itself from its already tired ideas, Death to Smoochy could only succeed through energy and originality. In many ways, director Danny DeVito and company supply just that, but it's never quite enough to compensate for the tired, cliche-laden script by Alan Resnick, the mind behind Chris Elliott's video cult classic Cabin Boy (1994) and the recent Nora Ephron bomb Lucky Numbers (2000). In fact, DeVito's restless vigor behind the camera becomes actively distracting because it is so unfocused given the triteness of the material Resnick supplies.

Robin Williams brings to the screen his most obnoxious tendencies to overact in the role of Rainbow Randolph, the host of a popular children's TV show. Rainbow Randolph is publicly disgraced when it is discovered that he is taking bribes to get kids front and center on his show, and he is quickly replaced by the ultra-squeaky-clean Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), whose creation is a happy-go-lucky fuchsia rhinoceros named Smoochy.

Sheldon is so squeaky clean, in fact, that he is literally untouchable by the forces of corruption, namely a shadowy talent agent named Burke (Danny DeVito) who's really working for Merv Green (Harvey Fierstein), the head of children's charity that is really a front for skimming money (not to mention corrupt TV executives, a crack-addict assassin, and a bunch of Irish mafia goons—no, wait, the Irish mafia goons are the good guys). Sheldon is so wrapped up in his anti-commercial, organic-food-obsessed do-gooderism that he literally builds an impenetrable shield of earnestness and decency around himself, even converting other people in his wake, namely a cynical TV executive (Catherine Keener, the only actor to keep a head above water) who at first despises him, but then loves him for his overwhelming niceness (in a movie as generally mean-spirited as this one, it still takes a moment to show that nice guys do finish first).

Meanwhile, Rainbow Randolph slides into a miserable, homeless existence that revolves around his seething hatred for Smoochy. Ranting and raving and cursing and screaming, Williams appears to be trying to make up for every schmaltzy movie in which he's appeared over the last decade, from Awakenings (1990) to Patch Adams (1998). Unfortunately, his performance is rarely as funny as it is strained, and much of it seems to rely on the dubious humor of a children's TV show star cussing (if I had a dime for every time he screamed, "But I'm Rainbow f---ing Randolph!"). Williams is not alone, though, as Edward Norton, one of the most gifted dramatic actors to emerge in the last few years, overplays his hand as well by allowing Sheldon's gee-whiz goody-two-shoes outlook on life to become as overbearing as Randolph's incessant bitterness.

With all the talent involved in Death to Smoochy, it is not surprising that there are a few laughs, including a truly inspired song by Smoochy about stepfathers (they're not mean, just adjusting) and an eye-popping sequence involving a Nazi rally. Ultimately, though, most of the laughs that the film elicits are not because the jokes are funny, but because you laugh in astonishment that anyone would try to derive humor from such scenes, which include a man threatening to burn himself alive in the middle of Times Square and a replay of the aforementioned Nazi rally during a Smoochy on Ice show.

If you've seen DeVito's other directorial efforts, most notably Throw Momma From the Train (1987) and The War of the Roses (1989), then you are probably well aware of his uniquely cartoonish style and his penchant for the blackest of black humor. Death to Smoochy follows the same path, but its ideas are so dull, its dialogue so uninspired, and its acting so ridiculously over the top that it quickly moves from funny, to tiresome, to simply irritating—a true disappointment.

Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (1.5)

James Kendrick

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