Death to Smoochy
review by Gregory Avery, 29 March 2001

As Sheldon Mopes, the eponymous hero of the black comedy Death to Smoochy,  Edward Norton strums the guitar while wearing a funny, helmet-like headdress that is supposed to transform him into Smoochy the Rhino, an ambassador of gladness who extols the virtues of good living, eating right, and always finding the positive side to everything. (One of Sheldon's vast repetoire of songs is about how children should respond to grumpy stepfathers, "He's Not Mean, He's Adjusting.) The children's cable channel executives who latch onto him and plan to vault him to celebrity status think that he's too good to be true, but, the fact is, he is...absolutely true.

Edward Norton locates exactly the spark that would make Sheldon sweet, genuine, and unimpeachable in the strength of his convictions in such a way that would win over even the toughest cookies, including one TV executive played by Catherine Keener (basically playing the same character she played in Being John Malkovich, only, if you can imagine it, much tougher). The story becomes a journey whereby we watch and see whether Sheldon will prove to be indomitable over even the cruelest of circumstances that come his way.

The picture, which Danny De Vito directed from an original screenplay by Adam Resnick, captures the fast-track quality of the commercial television industry, where everyone's a commodity and popularity can hurtle up and down on a day-to-day basis. (Resnick previously worked as a writer on HBO's astonishingly acerbic TV satire The Larry Sanders Show.) But its depiction of television as a fish tank where the piranhas are feeding on each other feels awfully familiar, especially after you realize that you're supposed to judge the characters' worth in the picture based on how many cuss words they use. (Network, anyone?) The irony of the world of children's television being as cutthroat as any other branch of television comes as no surprise to anyone who's followed the real-life travails of John Kricfalusi and The Ren and Stimpy Show during the last ten years.

Sheldon's playful character Smoochy is replacing the disgraced Rainbow Randolph, who was -- gasp! -- caught taking bribes. We don't see very much of Randolph's show -- which may be the point, it's a totally disposable product, albeit with a creepy Dayglo-and-Formica look that brings to mind the Sid and Marty Kroff nightmare programs of the Seventies, and with a theme song whose lyrics sound like they're supposed to be sneaky double-entendres -- so we don't know what we're missing. Instead, the film plunges immediately into Randolph's vilest depths of misery, and Robin Williams' portrayal of Randolph is a weirdly disagreeable, one-note turn. He seems to emphasize the most vitriolic, spiteful, squalid, and encrusted qualities -- Randolph isn't just a phony, he's a veritable black hole of negative energy, but Williams nonetheless seems to be playing him within a very narrow emotional range, even after Randolph has a putative change-of-heart near the end. Until then, he attempts to disgrace Smoochy by associating him with Nazis; later, he tries to immolate himself in Times Square, and even that doesn't work right. Randolph's efforts should take cosmic proportions of some sort, but they don't.

The picture itself jacks up its increasing sense of craziness as it reaches its climax, a huge ice show during which Sheldon/Smoochy seems to be finally succumbing to the swan song of celebrity self-aggrandizement. The scene itself manages to also reference half a dozen other movies, including The Parallax View and The Manchurian Candidate.  By this time, a whole score of people are after Smoochy, either out of jealousy, resentfulness, or just plain craziness. Edward Norton's performance, consistent to the end, turns out to be the best (make that very best) thing about Death to Smoochy; the film itself, though, takes a nasty spill at about the one-hour mark, and never fully recovers. It tries to get high on its own sense of dizziness and whacked-out plot occurrences, but, like one of its very own characters, it just ends up being buggy.

Directed by:
Danny De Vito

Starring:
Robin Williams
Edward Norton
Catherine Keener
Danny De Vito
Pam Ferris
Harvey Fierstein
Jon Stewart

Written by:
Adam Resnick

Rated:
R- Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian.

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