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Dustin Putman

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Death to Smoochy (2002)
2 Stars

Directed by Danny DeVito
Cast: Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, Robin Williams, Danny DeVito, Jon Stewart, Harvey Fierstein, Pam Ferris, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Schiavelli
2002 – 103 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, profanity, and sexual references).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 29, 2002.

If unsuspecting parents take their children to see Danny DeVito's pitch black comedy, "Death to Smoochy," mistakenly believing it is about an innocent kiddie program, they'll be in for a horrible surprise. Vulgar, foul-mouthed, and violent, the film is a zany, skewed look at the not-pretty behind-the-scenes goings on of a kid's network.

Rainbow Randolph Smiley (Robin Williams) is the proud host of cable network Kidnet's most popular children's show, until he is caught illegally taking monetary bribes from parents to get their own kids on the program. In an effort to quickly replace his time slot with a new show, TV bosses Nora Wells (Catherine Keener) and Frank Stokes (Jon Stewart) turn to struggling performer Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), who instantly rises to stardom with his lovable character of Smoochy, a purple rhinoceros more than likely intended to remind one of Barney the Dinosaur. Sheldon, however, refuses to play by Kidnet's rules, insisting that Smoochy should not be a commercialized property, but a well-meaning, educational program. Meanwhile, Sheldon's sudden success puts Rainbow over the deep end, as he set out to sabotage the innocuous image of Smoochy.

While screenwriter Adam Resnick (2000's "Lucky Numbers") and director Danny DeVito's (2001's "What's the Worst That Could Happen?") goal is to make a cutthroat satire, they don't always aim high enough to elicit the intended laughs. Aside from a few sharp barbs at the expense of Barney and the Teletubbies, and a delirious song Smoochy sings to a group of children called, "My Stepdad's Not Mean, He's Just Adjusting," "Death to Smoochy" often appears to be holding itself back from truly breaking loose. Had Resnick finely tuned his script a little bit more, the results could have been incendiary. As is, the writing makes hints at its possible brilliant lunacy, but only tiptoes around the edges.

Still, "Death to Smoochy" is a generally crafty and always original motion picture, something fairly sporadic in today's bleak world of mainstream moviemaking. Reminiscent of DeVito's savage 1989 film, "The War of the Roses," this film is easily superior because it actually has a heart just beneath the surface. Whereas "The War of the Roses" was so nasty and meanspirited as to become genuinely unpleasant to watch, "Death to Smoochy" is sharper, wittier, and features an unforeseen redemptive conclusion. Even more thankfully, it is a masterpiece when placed aside another recent behind-the-scenes comedy of television programming, the terrible "Showtime."

The entire cast works as a strong, game ensemble, and anyone expecting Robin Williams (1999's "Bicentennial Man") to be the star attraction, as the ads and trailers are suggesting, will be disappointed. As the supporting character of psychotic Rainbow Randolph, Williams gives a wickedly good performance that makes you want to cheer his decision to finally make a movie outside the kid's movie market he has recently fallen victim to. This is Williams' big "F--- You!" to his worst critics, who have suggested he has gone soft for good.

Edward Norton (2001's "The Score"), as the honest Sheldon Mopes, has a less flashy role than Williams, but is given ample opportunity to test his own comic waters with the sequences set during the filming of the "Smoochy" show. As the bitch-who-turns-out-to-have-a-heart-of-gold, Nora, Catherine Keener (1999's "Being John Malkovich") is always a welcome addition to any film, and she is superb here. It's also nice to finally see her again playing someone with a few more emotional shades than just the "nasty" girl. Also making an appearance is Danny DeVito himself, playing Sheldon's possibly crooked agent, Burke.

On the basis of the premise and the picture's pacing, "Death to Smoochy" is a little sloppy. Luckily, whenever the movie starts to lose its way, it comes back with another inventive idea of plot development. The climax, set during a strikingly beautiful "Smoochy on Ice" show, plays out almost like an operatic tragedy. And the final moments bring a warmth to all three central figures--Sheldon, Nora, and Rainbow--that could never have been predicted. "Death to Smoochy" could have afforded another rewrite and a little more comedy to match its subjective darkness, but its downfalls are evened out by a creativity all too rarely seen at the movies.

©2002 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman