'Smoochy' Hits Smack In the Kisser

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 29, 2002

Within the first few minutes of "Death to Smoochy" it's clear that Robin Williams is finally doing penance for "Patch Adams," "Flubber," "Good Will Hunting" and every other earnest, life-affirming movie he's done in the past decade. Life will not be affirmed in "Death to Smoochy." In fact, life will be pretty much ridiculed with the same meanness and cynicism as are the rest of the film's targets.

As the movie opens, Williams, playing a children's TV star named Rainbow Randolph, is cavorting onstage in a multicolored jacket, surrounded by a bevy of hyperkinetic kids and singing a song about loving everyone. It's tempting to think that he's resurrecting Mork until you suddenly realize that he's come to bury that persistent sitcom persona in a flurry of sexual double entendres, vicious asides and predatory leers. At that point, viewers are advised to either laugh or leave, because in "Death to Smoochy" there isn't much middle ground.

Rainbow Randolph is the star of Kidnet, a Nickelodeon-type network where squirrelly president M. Frank Stokes (Jon Stewart) runs interference with corporate owners, and a programming chief named Nora (Catherine Keener) tries to dream up the next big marketing scam – er, cartoon hero – with which to lure their audience. Picture Faye Dunaway in "Network," only with shorter extras, and you get the idea. Kidnet rules the neon ballyhoo of Times Square, and Randolph rules Kidnet until he's caught with his hand in a briefcase full of money proffered by anxious stage parents who will pay to have their rugrat front and center on the "Rainbow Randolph" show. Once the fuzz nail him, he's out on the street and Kidnet must find someone who's above reproach, beyond criticism, unworthy of contempt, capable of no malice. In other words, a real chump.

They find him in Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), aka Smoochy, a washed-up kids' comedian who lately has been taking his pink rhinoceros act on the IV circuit: hospitals, nursing homes and methadone clinics. When Smoochy comes to Kidnet the suits are shocked to discover that his integrity, honesty and sincerity actually sell: Kids love him, and his songs – about the deliciousness of vegetables and the importance of donating plasma – clearly resonate with a demographic yearning for deeper meaning and purpose. (One of the best songs of the film is "My Stepdad's Not Mean, He's Adjusting.") Of course Nora and Frank see big pink puffy dollar signs and immediately start merchandising, a move that inspires Sheldon – with the help of his new agent – to take over as executive producer to protect his artistic vision. ("When you look at your audience, you don't see kids," Sheldon says to Nora, "you see wallets with pigtails.")

But Sheldon doesn't just have to watch his back among the media elites: Randolph, whose downward spiral has coincided with an increasing obsession with killing Smoochy, is plotting to bring down the rhino in ever more diabolical ways. What's more, Merv Green (Harvey Fierstein), the head of a nonprofit called Parade of Hope, is pressuring Smoochy to do his annual ice show and, as Sheldon's agent says alarmingly, Parade of Hope "is the roughest of all the charities."

Danny DeVito, who plays Sheldon's agent, directed "Death to Smoochy," a movie ideally suited to the dark sensibilities he brought to "Ruthless People," "Throw Momma From the Train" and "The War of the Roses." Other than Mel Brooks, perhaps only DeVito could have such wicked fun with a Nazi rally, not to mention an Irish mob hit, an attempted self-immolation or the movie's capper, an ice show starring jackbooted thugs, surreally costumed little people and a Valkyrie. On skates.

In the tradition of such great media commentaries as "A Face in the Crowd," "Death to Smoochy" makes a principled objection to the hypocrisy, greed and exploitation that drive American lives today, but DeVito and screenwriter Adam Resnick never let self-righteousness get in the way of a good Fatty Arbuckle joke. Happily, the cast is perfectly in tune with their approach, with Williams showing some of the danger and cruelty that, along with his polymorphous mania, make him a great artist (rather than a mere entertainer) and Norton playing Smoochy absolutely straight. When Sheldon tells a bartender that he idolizes Captain Kangaroo and Jesus because they were both "all about the work, especially Jesus," you not only believe him but find yourself agreeing.

It's difficult, in a family newspaper, to convey just how profane, violent, mean-spirited and nasty "Death to Smoochy" is, so maybe a few pop cultural clues are in order. If you are or ever have been a fan of "The Larry Sanders Show" (for which Resnick wrote), "South Park" or the defunct FX series "Action," you might well relish "Smoochy's" particular brand of venom. If you're a fan of "Providence," "Touched by an Angel" or anything involving Jane Seymour, stay home. This is a particularly toxic little bonbon, palatable to only a chosen and very jaundiced few.

DEATH TO SMOOCHY (R, 101 minutes)Contains language and sexual references. At area theaters.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company