DEATH TO SMOOCHY
Director: Danny DeVito
Cast: Edward Norton, Robin Williams, Catherine Keener, Danny DeVito, Jon Stewart, Pam Ferris, Harvey Fierstein, Michael Rispoli, Danny Woodburn
MPAA Rating: (for language and sexual references)
Running Time: 1:41
Release Date: 3/29/02
Review by Mark Dujsik
Death to Smoochy is a cinematic exercise roughly equivalent to repeatedly punching a wall. Sure, it could be seen as a decent workout, but the wall isn’t going to feel a thing, you’re going to take more damage than you dish out, people will look at you funny, and it’s ultimately pretty pointless. It’s a dark comedy that goes for sick and demented humor simply to do so. The movie is without intent. It takes a fairly easy target, children’s television programming, and misses just about all of the obvious and on-target jokes, vying instead for completely off-topic and random attempts at milking shocked laughs of disbelief. It’s difficult to comprehend how this went wrong—and so glaringly wrong on top of it. Danny DeVito directed it, and he’s had success with dark comedies like The War of the Roses and Throw Momma from the Train and even made the wickedly conceived children’s film Matilda. Robin Williams, Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, and DeVito himself star in it, and they’re certainly fine comedic actors. What happened?
The movie starts off fine enough. Williams plays Rainbow Randolph, a big-time children’s television star with a penchant for racketeering money out of desperate parents looking to get their child into the spotlight. He’s arrested by a couple of undercover FBI agents and loses everything. Enter two producers—Nora Wells (Keener) and Marion Stokes (Jon Stewart)—who need to find a clean-cut, jail-free replacement. The two come across Sheldon Mopes (Norton) who fits the bill perfectly. Wells approaches Mopes at a local methadone clinic, where he performs as his alter ego Smoochy, the purple rhino. Smoochy becomes an overnight sensation, but Mopes isn’t happy with hocking corporate merchandise to children. Meanwhile, Randolph exists as a pariah on the streets. Totally abandoned by his former colleagues and ignored by the masses, he wants his previous life back. The only option: sabotage Smoochy’s reputation and regain his rightful position.
If this all sounds promising, it should. The premise itself is a comic gem of opportunity, but soon after its opening moments, it’s abundantly clear the execution won’t live up to its promise. The movie is unfocused, and the jokes it pulls out of nowhere make it unmistakably so. The corporate mentality of the business is essentially left unscathed, and instead the movie brings in... the Irish Mafia? So many potent opportunities available, and this is what we’re left with? Topping it all off, the screenplay by Adam Resnick exhausts these left-field gags for all they’re worth; especially when they aren’t funny. The result is that scenes go on far too long. Just look at the sequence that introduces Mopes. We see him at the clinic, and then Wells takes him to a diner where they sit and talk for quite a long time. The scene, void of major signs of life in the first place, curls up and dies rather quickly.
A very respectable cast suffers as a result. Norton is an actor of seemingly limitless versatility, but (and I never thought I’d say this) he’s incredibly awkward here. Watching his performance, we get the idea that he’s not really sure what he’s doing. There are dialogue exchanges here that seem like he’s simply reciting the lines. Keener, such a standout as the sexy coworker in Being John Malkovich, isn’t given a character worth delving into. DeVito plays the role he’s played many times before. Finally, there’s Robin Williams. After a few years of lower-key performance, he’s back in manic mode. I appreciated his enthusiasm, and it’s nice to see him back as such. Unfortunately, he’s not always successful with it here.
The approach Death to Smoochy takes to its material is borderline incompetent. If the movie is trying to use children’s programming as a springboard to satirize something larger, it makes no attempt to clue us in to what it could possibly be. Some last minute adjectives that come to mind to describe the movie are painfully inept, overlong, and seemingly endless. To continue the list would be unfair to a thesaurus. They have weaker spines, after all.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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