starring Robin Williams, Edward Norton, Danny DeVito, Jon Stewart
screenplay by Adam Resnick
directed by Danny DeVito
by Walter Chaw Demonstrating a wonderfully wry conversance with Hitchcock's images, Danny DeVito as director made an interesting debut with the Strangers on a Train redux Throw Momma from the Train before crafting what is possibly the definitive Eighties comedy in the Stygian The War of the Roses. After a thirteen year hiatus featuring strange detours into other genres (the uneven Hoffa and the shrill Matilda), DeVito returns to the dark comedy with Death to Smoochy, a disjointed, dull, and irritating film that provides a meagre helping of "comedy" while ladling on a heaping serving of disconnected "dark." To say the least, the picture is a resounding disappointment and what can only be seen as a betrayal of Robin Williams's newfound desire to be viewed as something other than America's favourite velvet clown with the upcoming films Insomnia and One Hour Photo.
Rainbow Randolph (Williams) is a neo-Blinky who gets caught in a bribery sting and loses his reputation along with his coveted time slot on the fictional network Kidnet. Bitter and psychotic, Randolph begins stalking his replacement, "earnest, harmless cornball" Sheldon Mopes, whose fuchsia rhinoceros Smoochy captures the easily won hearts and minds of children. It isn't long before the Irish mafia (who become involved through the insistence of a punch-drunk goon (Michael Rispoli)), the mob-like charity Parade of Light led by the fabulous Harvey Fierstein, and Smoochy's bosses--"Jewish Caesar" Stokes (Jon Stewart), ice queen Nora (Catherine Keener), and manager Burke (DeVito)--all try to get a piece of the Smoochy pie.
A subject matter as ripe for excoriation and satire as the hypocrisy driving the business side of children's programming deserves a treatment from a screenwriter more talented than someone like Adam Resnick. His third script after the bad idea Cabin Boy and the appalling Lucky Numbers, Death to Smoochy is completely reliant on extended, emptily profane screaming monologues provided by a one-note, vein-popping Robin Williams and a few tragically boring stretches that go on for what seems like several eternities. Ed Norton is fine in a "sensitive new age guy" caricature that was tackled with more alacrity and edge on "Beavis and Butthead", and Fierstein and Vincent Schiavelli offer the sort of John Waters-grade camp performances to which their physical appearances and reputations condemn them. The worst performance of the film unfortunately belongs to Catherine Keener; so rich in Being John Malkovich, she's all empty eye-rolls, foot stomps, and snorts here.
Death to Smoochy, however, looks fantastic. Anastas Michos's (who has worked with DeVito on Man on the Moon and Norton on Keeping the Faith) cinematography evokes a neon-soaked noir sensibility heavy on the green filters and the slatted shadows. Married to DeVito's deep focus and dedication to the low-angle, Death to Smoochy is simply beautiful: it joins David Fincher's Panic Room and Michael Mann's Ali as recent works that display a high degree of technical proficiency yet fail to mask their narrative emptiness. Despite the surface similarities, make no mistake that DeVito's film is by far the worst of them.
There are fruitful comic moments in Death to Smoochy: a tableau on ice as Norton in a rhino costume pauses mournfully to listen to a Wagnerian dirge is wonderful, as is a moment where the peacenik Sheldon confesses: "When we were kids and played cowboys and Indians, I was always the Chinese rail worker." Sadly, the highlights are few and far between, pushed to the side by endless exposition, a limited repertoire of expressions from Keener repeated ad nauseum, Robin Williams actually encouraged to be more irritating, and an uncomfortable number of jokes that just fall flat. The sinister inspiration that fuelled DeVito's early work is confused in Death to Smoochy into something both ugly and mindless; isn't satire so much as mean slapstick, The War of the Roses in the hands of a less capable director. The great tragedy is that the director is one and the same, separated by thirteen years that appear to have been unkind. Originally published: March 29, 2002.