'Smoochy': Beating a Dead Rhino

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 29, 2002

SATIRE is like a cat playing with a mouse. Even though the victim doesn't usually fare too well in the end, it's more fun when you're able to keep it alive as long possible.

"Death to Smoochy," a blacker than black comedy from actor-director Danny DeVito, breaks that rule – along with several taboos and the back of its subject – in the first 30 minutes. It's so over the top, the top isn't even visible in the rear-view mirror. And although the target of its bruising parody is never clear, the hit-and-run film sends a battered corpse to the morgue long before the closing credits.

Taking its inspiration (sort of) from Barney the dinosaur, "Smoochy" is the story of a man in a purple – excuse me, fuschia – rhinoceros suit. That man would be Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), a sort of low-rent, New Age Mr. Rogers who dresses up as a hot-pink pachyderm for a living, strapping on a guitar and singing simperingly uplifting songs to sick children and recovering drug addicts on Coney Island. One day, after kiddie TV superstar Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams, acting like Captain Kangaroo on crack) gets arrested for accepting bribes to feature the children of affluent New Yorkers on camera, the suits at Kidnet force Randolph's producers (Jon Stewart and Catherine Keener) to find a suitable, i.e. squeaky clean, replacement.

Enter Mopes, aka Smoochy, a man so saccharine sweet he's "a bottle of pancake syrup with legs," in the words of new boss Frank Stokes (Stewart). Meanwhile Randolph, or "Rainbow [bleeping] Randolph," as he keeps calling himself, goes off the deep end. Unemployed, broke and boozing more than ever, he becomes obsessed with Smoochy as the engine of his public humiliation and sets out to ruin his rival in whatever way he can, setting him up as the unwitting featured entertainer at a Nazi rally, for starters.

As Smoochy's popularity and power soar, other enemies, in short order, follow suit: corrupt charity boss and ice-spectacle producer Merv Green (Harvey Fierstein), talent agent Burke Bennett (DeVito) and Stokes himself, all of whom are angry when Mopes's ethics prevent them from cashing in on his success.

This is when "Smoochy" (the film, not the rhino) begins to need a defibrillator. As the violence and potty-mouthed, spit-flecked revenge tirades escalate, it becomes unclear what the object of this satire – caustically scripted by Adam Resnick, a gifted, Emmy-winning former writer on such shows as "Late Night With David Letterman and "The Larry Sanders Show" – is.

Is it really Barney and his simple-minded ilk? If so, the overkill here is a little like shooting fish in a barrel – with a bazooka. Is it the corruption and commodification of children's television? Okay, real life is bad, with product spinoffs and merchandise "co-branding" everywhere you look. But murder as a tool of business leverage? That seems beyond lampooning. And the stale trope of the outwardly smiling children's entertainer with the foul disposition off camera (see Soupy Sales) already feels hackneyed, not to mention more amusingly parodied in the form of "The Simpsons' " Krusty the Clown.

Resnick's writing is clever (too clever, at times, with an excess of such would-be Raymond Chandlerisms as "They'll jump on you like a trampoline"). DeVito's direction, and the crazy camera angles of director of photography Anastas Michos, are appropriately extreme. Although Keener is cute (if foul-mouthed) and Norton a believable goody-two-shoes, Williams seems to view the role as yet another gratuitous opportunity to grandstand with a stream of obscenity-laced dialogue delivered in accents ranging from "Amos 'n' Andy" to a Scottish burr.

"What the hell kind of world are we living in?" laments Mopes at one point.

"The real one," replies Burke.

Unfortunately, that's not even close to the truth. What's missing from "Smoochy," an entertainment sendup that little resembles life as we know it, is, in the final analysis, the shock of recognition.

DEATH TO SMOOCHY (R, 108 minutes)Contains corrosive obscenity, cartoonish violence and sexual subject matter. Area theaters.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company