Death to Smoochy
2002, R, 101 min. Directed by Danny DeVito. Starring Robin Williams, Danny DeVito, Edward Norton, Harvey Fierstein, Catherine Keener, Jon Stewart, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Schiavelli.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 29, 2002
“Comedy isn't pretty” is an axiom that Danny DeVito holds dear, alongside “comedy is dark,” “comedy is subversion,” and, my favorite, “comedy, like people, just ain't no good.” All these and more are in full bloom in DeVito's winningly mean-spirited tale of kiddie-show intrigue, which deftly mixes a bargain-basement Barney-like icon with smack addicts, closet sociopaths, gender issues, murder, and Catherine Keener's arch bitchiness (apparently lifted whole from Being John Malkovich). The result comes out loud, brash, vulgar, and considerably entertaining. Death to Smoochy has the feel of a vanity project that has managed to transcend its motley pedigree, and it's so clearly made for and by DeVito's sensibilities that you can't imagine anyone else having the nerve to tackle it. It has the willfully obnoxious vibe of an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon, and just when you feel that it surely cannot be any more offensive it manages to top itself. This is, of course, both good and bad; Death to Smoochy is a satire of children's television shows and their hosts, a field ripe for ridicule but difficult to pull off, and it constantly flirts with the same sort of headache-inducing overkill as the programming it seeks to skewer. Williams, laying waste to his Patch Adams persona not a moment too soon, plays Rainbow Randolph, host of a celebrated kids show that features borderline double entendres in its musical numbers and a cast of all-singing, all-dancing little people called the Krinkle Kids. Caught taking payola, he's dismissed by network programming VP Frank Stokes (Stewart), who with partner Nora Wells (Keener) finds a squeaky-clean replacement in the form of Edward Norton's Sheldon Mopes, the man behind lovable fuchsia rhinoceros character Smoochy. Mopes/Smoochy is an idealistic, somewhat dim children's entertainer given to clean living and true-blue values. The jaded, cynical Wells despises this corn-fed ray of sunshine at once, but the Nickelodeon-like network she works for thinks he's aces, and with the help of conniving agent Burke (DeVito) Smoochy makes the show into a pulpit from which he can educate the wee ones. The obsessive, lunatic Randolph, meanwhile, plots to usurp the usurper via various schemes involving Nazis, junkie assassins, and other avenues not usually associated with children's television. DeVito's direction is of the Motörhead school: Everything louder than everything else. Death to Smoochy is about as subtle as clown porn, and nearly as funny. Williams looks as though he's delighted to gut his recent run of heartfelt, schmaltzy dips, and the rainbow-patterned jacket he wears recalls the trademark suspenders he regularly wore during his early stand-up days when he was usually amped on coke and considerably more funny than his more recent incarnations. For his part Norton loses himself in the Mopes/Smoochy amalgam; he's all aw-shucks earnestness and goofball semi-vacuity, and for the most part it works. Gleefully nasty is a style DeVito knows well (The War of the Roses is a stylistic and thematic forerunner to Smoochy) and he does it with equal parts sass and vitriol. It's not all chuckles, though. A fair amount of gags fall by the wayside amidst the film's circus-like atmosphere, and Smoochy is an abrasive ride all the way around, cloying but funny in a drunken party-guest sort of way. It's good -- no, great -- to see Williams as a mean rat bastard, finally, in light of the treacle fans have had to endure since at least 1996's Jack. That alone makes DeVito's scattershot black comedy worth seeing.