Death to Smoochy

The commercial corruption of kids T.V. gets an offbeat and humorous assessment in this non-kiddy comedy.

Released in 2002, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 03 Apr 2003 by Craig Eastman
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The Tellytubbies sure have a lot to answer for. Ever since their cute and innocent shenanigans propelled them to the status of number one T.V. phenomenon of the late nineties and taught a generation of kids to forget how to speak English, there has been a constant stream of idiots in giant foam animal/alien costumes waiting in the wings to be The Next Big Thing in kids entertainment. The parents are stripped of their sanity (and perhaps more importantly their cash) by the incessant demands of their children, innocently peddling the brainwashing mantras of their corporate, capitalist merchandising masters. Perhaps then Death to Smoochy is the ideal nights viewing for such parents, for it is a very darkly humorous and adult pastiche of the people and moneyspinning ideas behind such quickly changing yet never less money-absorbing fads.

Robin Williams is top kids show presenter "Rainbow Randolph"; a man with legions of adoring fans both young and old, who holds the top primetime kids T.V. ratings. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Randolph is busted by the FBI for accepting cash gratuities from parents desperate to get their kids on air. A panicked meeting of boardroom executives to find the ideal stopgap replacement leads them to a Coney Island drugs rehabilitation centre where Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton) teaches crack addicts life-lessons through sing-alongs dressed as "Smoochy the Rhino", a ragged purple-suited animal character of his own creation.

Thrust in front of the cameras at a moments notice in a vastly upgraded, tailor-made suit, Sheldon makes Smoochy the new number one kids sensation and soon the youngsters of Manhattan are hammering at the doors of commercialism for Smoochy merchandise. Less than happy at the dilution of his ideal into a means of filling capitalist coffers, the naive Sheldon happens upon celebrity agent Burke Bennett (Danny DeVito), who promises him greater creative control over his character and the Smoochy show. The idealistic Sheldon accepts, little knowing that Bennett has a hidden agenda to make some unscrupulous charities a lot of money through a "Smoochy On Ice" show.

Someone else is less than happy at the situation too, namely Randolph Smiley, who, tipped over the edge by his fall from grace, begins plotting to end the reign of Sheldon and his bastard pink creation. Throw in some Irish gangsters looking to keep their attention craving, thirty-something younger brother Spinner (an ex-boxer whose punch drunk activities have rendered him mentally retarded) occupied with a slot on Smoochy's show, and you have a surefire recipe for pink rhino disaster.

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The rise, fall, then rise again of Sheldon's creation and career is something of a comic clich? as far as the narrative is concerned, but the humour keeps things afloat nicely. Amongst other insane plots, Randolph finally manages to knock Sheldon out of the limelight by setting him up to unknowingly attend a Nazi rally which is busted by the cops, rather inconveniently affording the press ample opportunity to snap Smoochy cowering beneath a fifty-foot swastika banner and thus ending his glittering reign. It's one of many moments of genuinely funny and left-field comic genius up until this midway point in the picture. Williams' mad ranting has until now kept the funny-juice flowing in free supply; witness the sublime moment where Smoochy opens his cookie bag on live T.V. to find Randolph has replaced the contents with altogether more sexually suggestive foodstuffs. Left holding a penis-shaped biscuit in front of a shocked audience, a stuttering Sheldon foils the plan by announcing "Look kids, it's a...a...a space rocket!", causing Randolph to enter the stage screaming obscenities and thus cementing his reputation as a psychotic has-been, rather than a misunderstood genius.

The problem is that whilst the first fifty minutes are full of such great moments, the pace stumbles severely in the later reels, with Williams' hilarious plotting giving way to simply hurling obscenities and attempting to set fire to himself in the middle of Times Square. Had the rest of the cast been given a bit more depth and a little extra comic input to begin with, Williams stalling might not have been such a problem, but unfortunately his lapse from comic ranting to downright obscene ranting all but cripples the rest of the movie.

While it remains a largely entertaining picture, from this point Death to Smoochy becomes yet another comedy might-have-been which has the potential to be superb, but ends up just mediocre. The uncomfortable shift to murder both attempted and achieved (Smoochy becomes the target of corporate assassins twice; once foiled and the other resulting in the mistaken killing of Spinner whilst dressed as Smoochy's rhino cousin Moochy) in these reels just highlights the comic deceleration and shows up the weakness of the script when Williams can't adlib his way out of the holes.

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Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed much of this movie immensely, it's just that it's hard to forgive the increasing tendency to violence and the unnecessary focus on love interest between Sheldon and his boss Nora (Catherine Keener) in the latter parts. It seems highly unfair that Williams has taken much of the blame in certain areas of the American press for the failure of Death to Smoochy since he actually performs above and beyond expectation for as long as the scripting is there to back him up.

Perhaps the biggest culprit here (other than the script) is DeVito's direction which loses pace just when it needs to pick up. Consequently the immense talents of Norton and Williams go largely to waste. The introduction of Vincent Schiavelli as narcoleptic hitman "Buggy Ding Dong" (no, seriously) is a dire warning of a shift from inventive humour to full-on slapstick, and it should have been controlled more carefully by those responsible.

Ultimately, Death to Smoochy will remain an average laugh-wagon with rare moments of sparkling genius. By no means a failure, but considering the talent on board and the promising start it really should have been something a little bit special. Points, certainly, for being relatively original in that no other film I can think of has dealt with the subject matter of kids T.V. and it's degeneration into commercialism, but not enough kudos to raise the bar. Smoochy, like the man Brando, will no doubt be telling himself "I coulda been a contender". And he'd be damn right.

Craig Disko has seen fit to award Death to Smoochy 3 out of 5 possible Random Thingy Units.

Danny DeVito
Cast list:
Edward Norton (Sheldon Mopes / Smoochy)
Robin Williams ("Rainbow" Randolph Smiley)
Catherine Kener (Nora Wells)
Danny DeVito (Burke Bennett)