"Death to Smoochy" is unlike any film you've come across. Directed by Danny DeVito, this dark little gem violently dismantles any expectations one might have about the world of children's television programming -- bribery, murder, alcohol abuse, decapitation, bitter vengeance, liberal usage of the F-word and even some pre-marital sex all wrapped in the protective arms of the Irish Mob. Leave little Johnny and pig-tailed Cindy at home for this one, capiche?
I'd like to welcome back Robin Williams to his dark comedy roots. Sir, we missed you when you went away to Tom Hanks happy feel-good land. This time, Williams is Rainbow Randolph, a tap-dancing kids show host who is basically Charles Bukowski off-screen. When his luck runs out and he's busted by the Feds, a replacement must be found, someone who is scandal-free -- a very tall order in the high-stakes, adrenalin-pumping, cutthroat world of kids TV.
Enter Smoochy, a large, fuscia rhino containing the idealistic, rich-in-principles-short-on-instincts character of Sheldon Mopes. Edward Norton is flat out adorable as he gradually wins over the hearts, minds and at least one body to his loving, organic ways. Smoochy is the real deal, insisting that the programming actually teach the children - a crazy concept - with helpful sing-a-longs like "My Stepdad's Not Mean (He's Just Adjusting)" and education about what processed sugar can to do your system. All the while, Smoochy resists the product marketing that inevitably comes with being universally loved by so-called wallets with pigtails. Hence, Smoochy must die.
DeVito does double duty portraying Smoochy's double-crossing agent and Jon Stewart (whose comedic talents are sadly underused here) is the corrupt network president. Both are disgusted by Smoochy's inner resolve. Nora, the program's executive producer, is a jaded, under-sexed bitch who is easily spotted as the heart to be melted/bra to be unhooked character. Catherine Keener does an excellent job of inhabiting the awkward, jittery woman who has spent far too many years as a kiddy show host groupie and paid the price.
Michael Rispoli is Spinner, an ex-boxer who now carries the brain of a child around in the same, loud large package that won so many bouts in the ring. Picture Mike Tyson - take away anger, fill with love, remove taste for human flesh and you've got Spinner. Spinner loves Smoochy with wild abandon. Spinner's Irish mob family quickly becomes Smoochy's unofficial protectors, led by Tommy Cotter, a red-headed matron played by the fiery Pam Ferris, an actress I hope to see more of.
"Death to Smoochy" is a strange ride. It's refreshing to see a film with so many mainstreamers taking some politically incorrect risks. Hats off to DeVito, a fellow fan of bizarre material, who delivers suicide attempts, penis-shaped cookies, and Nazis on ice with shameless glee. Perhaps there is a future for him in children's television programming.
© 2002 - Heather Clisby - Air Date: 4/3/02
Death to Smoochy