This just in: childrens’ television is a cesspool of commercialism! Um. OK, maybe that isn’t the greatest revelation since Jaye Davidson doffed that shirt in The Crying Game, but apparently Danny DeVito thinks it is. There have been many films ill advisedly made from Saturday Night Live sketches, but Death To Smoochy is perhaps the first instance where the process should have been reversed. Director DeVito and screenwriter Adam Resnick have constructed an unpleasantly loud and garish film that does a bipolar flip-flop between social commentary and slapstick – succeeding at neither – and takes 105 minutes to make a point that could have easily been delivered in five.
Smoochy is a purple Barney-esque rhinoceros, a sunny character created and played by Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton) on a new smash hit television show. Mopes/Smoochy ascended to the Kiddie TV throne when they were tabbed to replace Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams); who was nabbed by the FBI for participating in kickback schemes and taking bribes from parents who wanted their kids on the show. The network was looking for someone squeaky-clean and Mopes fit the bill. He makes Mr. Rogers look like an Enron executive running a brothel. Singing songs and dispensing advice like, "A stepdad is like a puppy, they need time and understanding to adjust to their new environment," Smoochy garners boffo ratings and puts a smile on everyone’s face. Everyone except for Rainbow Randolph, who secretly vows to eliminate the violet vermin and return to daytime TV prominence.
Beyond the already overdone jabs at commercialism, this is a film with no real heart. DeVito shovels a bunch of stuff on screen in the hopes that most of it will stick, but little actually does. Bright Play-Doh colors, wacky camera angles and a cartoonish soundtrack give the film a distinctly G-rated look. But the rest of the film is definitely rated R, as everyone in the cast except for Norton drops F-bombs left and right and can’t resist making every insult a sexual one, especially Williams – whose fevered exclamations seem especially contrived and gratuitous. Rainbow Rudolph and Smoochy are adored by cheering children, but their appeal has no apparent foundation. There’s certainly nothing shown from a child’s point of view that might explain their popularity.
In most films, Robin Williams is like seasoning – a very small dash can serve a purpose, too much spoils the meal – and Smoochy is no exception. He delivers his usual over the top, posturing performance, and leaves one wondering how much different a film this might be if a more subtle performer – say, Nathan Lane or Kevin Kline – had been cast in his stead. Mopes is too good to be true but Norton tries valiantly, almost managing to make him a believable character until oppressive third act nonsense drags him down along with the rest. As a network producer, Catherine Keener reprises her sardonic Maxine persona from Being John Malkovich to little effect, and DeVito himself does yet another turn as Stereotypical Short Untrustworthy Guy.
Resnick’s most notable previous contribution to the industry was as writer and director of 1994’s Cabin Boy. His script here is a patchwork of little note, containing dialog that mostly sounds like playground insults exchanged between fourth graders. There are numerous subplots involving network skullduggery, the Irish mob (!), Mopes/Smoochy being framed as a Nazi sympathizer, and a punch-drunk former prizefighter. They all get pulled out sporadically, like lottery balls plucked from a drum. But these digressions are mere padding and the film wheezes from one stock situation to the next.
By the film’s midpoint DeVito starts plagiarizing from himself (reprising a spinning plate shot from his The War of The Roses) and throwing in camera angles for big effect but to little purpose. It’s to Edward Norton’s credit that he can play a saint playing a purple rhinoceros and almost pull it off, but despite his best efforts Death to Smoochy eventually collapses under its own meager weight, with neither a bang nor a whimper.
– Bob Aulert