|Death to Smoochy
by Stephen Notley
I always thought the commercials for this movie were baffling. They primarily feature Robin Willams bibbling around in his pixieish way, slamming into walls and jumping on some guy. Why, I wondered, are they advertising it this way when they've got an obvious high concept to push: a disgraced children's entertianer loses it and decides to kill his replacement, a guy in a cute Barneyesque rhino costume? Why didn't they play with that?
Having seen the film, I feel I now better understand the commercial-makers' dilemma. Presented with a film that itself fumbles its basic premise and never quite seems to know what it's trying to be about, they obviously threw up their hands and punted, deciding eventually to lard the commerical with Robin Williams since they figured he must have an audience out there somewhere. Nice try, guys. Stupid, but I see where you were coming from.
Death to Smoochy was directed by Danny DeVito and written by Adam Resnick. On paper, this sounds great. DeVito's War of the Roses is a classic example of a solidly conceived and executed black comedy, with a no-cheat downbeat ending that seals the deal. Resnick, meanwhile, worked on Late Night with David Letterman and The Larry Sanders Show, and he wrote Letterman freako Chris Elliot's bizarre star vehicle, Cabin Boy. These guys seem like the perfect team to do Death to Smoochy. And the premise seems irresistible: who doesn't want to see somebody kick the crap out of Barney, or something that looks like Barney?
Instead, though, it's a muddier tale that seems to be trying to expose the icky, money-grubbing soul of the children's entertainment business. It does this by taking Edward Norton, the super sweet-creator of Smoochy, a guy who eats soy dogs with no-gluten buns, and plunking him down among a bunch of sleazy TV executives, retarded Irish mobsters, and evil ice show promoters.
Admittedly, this sounds pretty good. And there are funny things about Death to Smoochy, for sure. The richest vein of humor just comes from hearing people swear their fucking heads off in a TV kids'-show context. "Are you blind? It's a *cock!*" is a funny line in any universe.
And, you can't beat the cast. Catherine Keener's in there, playing almost precisely the same role she played in Being John Malkovitch, that of an amoral office bitch with a filthy mouth. But hey, she's good at that role, one of the best, and she never disappoints in Smoochy. Norton as Sheldon Mopes/Smoochy, is a super super super sweet guy, but somehow never quite so sweet you want to see him get killed (which might be the problem). Robin Williams... eh... he's certainly "on" in this movie, stumbling around as unemployed kids' star Rainbow Randolph, trying (sort of) to bring death to Smoochy. I've come to hate Robin Williams in the last few years, starting with his insipid What Dreams May Come, but still, he should have done more in this movie.
That's the biggest problem; Robin Williams' death-to-smoochy plot gets
relegated to a sideline in the midst of all the other stuff going on. Sure,
Rainbow Randolph is trying to kill Smoochy, but what's that compared to
spending screen time on a punch-dumb boxer who clangs rhythmlessly away
on a cowbell? The movie never quite focuses in on the basic idea and what's
funny about it -- killing Smoochy; instead, it's just a shmozzle of bad
guys. Never once do we see the primal image of a bunch of dudes kicking
the shit out of a guy in a purple rhino suit. There's just so much extra
clunky junk that the story never quite makes its way through. Death to
Smoochy has some good material and laughs in there, but it's still kind
of a mess.