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Death To Smoochy

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Death To Smoochy

Starring: Edward Norton, Robin Williams
Director: Danny DeVito
Rated: R
RunTime: 109 Minutes
Release Date: March 2002
Genre: Comedy

*Also starring: Pam Ferris, Danny DeVito, Catherine Keener, Harvey Fierstein, Danny Woodburn, Jon Stewart, Michael Rispoli

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
1 star out of 4

Geez, I am so fucking sick of Robin Williams. Like many people, I thought he was a riot in the beginning. But slowly, without ever really trying, I broke his manic stand-up act into its component parts. His "dazzling comedic magic" is one-third broad impressions (the thunderous evangelist, the mincing gay guy, the squealing child, etc.), one-third pop culture references (many of them dated) and one-third jokes (a few great ones sprinkled in with lots of duds), all delivered with the intensity of a ranting speed-freak.

As an actor, Williams has turned in some nice performances – his wistful turn in "The World According to Garp" was pleasantly naïve and his work in "Good Will Hunting" was strong and assured. But as time went by, his sappy leanings grew more and more pronounced, leading to "Patch Adams" and "Bicentennial Man," two of the most insufferable pieces of unfiltered bathos I have ever endured.

And now comes "Death to Smoochy." Having explored so many other approaches to being the party guest that arrives with a lampshade already on his head, Williams' latest tactic is the full-on assault. As demented kiddie-show host Rainbow Randolph, he is the personification of all things obnoxious; screaming, quivering, dancing and leering at the camera as luridly as he can manage. To be fair, his character is supposed be repulsive, but Christ, does he really need to be so damned good at it?

"Death to Smoochy" is a satire directed by Danny DeVito, and I use the word "satire" loosely, as the main target of the film is a character that resembles the plush purple dinosaur, Barney. Tackling Barney in 2002 – how daring! Where will you aim your bold comedic sword next, Mr. DeVito? Reaganomics?

Following a remarkably unfunny opening musical number, the production joins Rainbow Randolph as he gets popped for accepting a bribe from parents anxious to get their child on his hit TV show. After booting Randolph off the air, a pair of executives at KidNet (Jon Stewart and Catherine Keener) are so eager to find a squeaky clean host that they turn to Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), a starry-eyed type that dons a hot-pink rhinoceros suit to become Smoochy, role-model for all that is good.

Things almost get interesting here, as we get a look at Sheldon. The young man is a die-hard vegetarian opposed to chemicals in food. He champions kindness, reflection and good citizenship. Only the hard-hearted would mock his values, so DeVito goes after his guileless nature, silly songs and the costume. Edward Norton's approach to Sheldon is intriguing; there is something simmering beneath all the idealism. At one point he confesses to Keener's character that he came up with Smoochy while attending an anger management class. Unfortunately, the screenplay fails to do much with this juicy revelation.

The Smoochy show is an instant hit and Sheldon, attempting to prevent the network from slapping his creation's name on junk foods and shoddy merchandise, secures an aggressive new agent (DeVito). Smoochy becomes a showbiz powerhouse, unaware of the dark forces around him. His agent is in league with a gangster (Harvey Fierstein) and they want to get Smoochy on the lucrative ice show circuit, where they can rake in money through a bogus charity. Meanwhile, Randolph, gone completely insane, is out to rebuild his empire by ridding the world of the pink rhino.

Much as I'd like to, I can't simply write off "Death to Smoochy." There are many dreadful things in this film: Robin Williams' career-low performance, the stale pop culture references (Randolph bursts into a room and shouts "Whassup!" in one particularly cringe-inducing moment), the off-putting "wacky" camera angles and Jon Stewart's painfully passé Caesar haircut spring to mind.

But Edward Norton and Catherine Keener somehow manage to rise above the dull, unrelenting vulgarity. In Norton's hands, Sheldon is endearing, from his statement on his non-violent nature ("When we were little and my brothers played Cowboys and Indians, I was always the Chinese railroad worker") to his heartfelt song, "My Stepdad's Not Mean (He's Just Adjusting)." And Keener finds a way to keep her character believable and even sympathetic, despite the unevenness of the script.

Would I watch "Death to Smoochy" again? Yes, but only on DVD, secure in the knowledge that I could fast forward past anything that even faintly resembles Robin Williams and watch only Edward Norton and Catherine Keener.

Copyright © 2002 Edward Johnson-Ott

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