A paler shade of black

Death to Smoochy is a dark comedy that wants to be mean-spirited - so why doesn’t it just get on with it?

Allison Felus

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Danny DeVito’s Death to Smoochy, a film about corruption in children’s TV, is neither satire nor black comedy. It’s a perfect example of what happens when a filmmaker tries to be both scathing and lovable at the same time.

Robin Williams plays Rainbow Randolph, a foul-mouthed, foul-tempered host of a popular kid’s show. After being fired for accepting bribes, he’s replaced by Edward Norton as Sheldon Mopes, also known as Smoochy the Purple Rhinoceros. Norton’s dim-witted, health food-obsessed character soon finds himself embroiled in a web of dirty money, assassination attempts, sleazy agents, sleazier TV execs, kiddie show groupies and gangsters with secret agendas. Hilarity ensues.

There’s a wonderful, dark movie somewhere in the idea that our saccharine sweet children’s show hosts are vile human beings in real life. But this isn’t it. Because despite all the nastiness (penis-shaped cookies given to unsuspecting children, Rainbow Randolph’s cursing, murderous non-profit organisations), the film doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.

DeVito took a drastically wrong turn as director in allowing his actors to play the comedy instead of delivering the lines straight. So the film is cursed with a self-consciousness that seems to say, ‘Aren’t we being naughty – and don’t you love us for it?’.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Spinner (Michael Rispoli), a former boxing champ who becomes inordinately fond of Smoochy’s show. He’s played as a punch-drunk simpleton, slurring his speech and giving everybody bear hugs. It comes across like DeVito and screenwriter Adam Resnick really wanted a (pardon the expression) ‘retard’ in the movie – but lacked the edginess to be unapologetically un-PC. So they dreamed up some excuses for Spinner’s erratic behavior as a way to have their cake and eat it too.

Not that I’m advocating the use of disabled people as comedic devices. But if you’re making a black comedy and want to be mean-spirited, then be mean-spirited.

As Sheldon Mopes, Norton does his best Woody Harrelson impression (couldn’t they get the real Woody for the role?). Norton comes closest to looking like he actually believes in his character – with some genuinely endearing interactions between him and the children on the show.

Catherine Keener was the perfect choice for the role of Nora Wells, the executive who hires and eventually falls in love with Sheldon. After her superlative work in Your Friends and Neighbours and Being John Malkovich, it’s clear she excels at dark comedy. Unfortunately, she got saddled with more undeliverable lines than Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind. Keener actually had to say, ‘there’s no excuse for you’ when someone sneered, ‘excuse my language’. I can almost understand how a line that bad could make it into the final draft of a script – but how did it make it into the final cut of the film?

Critics have claimed that Robin Williams’ appearance in Smoochy is his way of atoning for sappy feelgood flicks like Patch Adams. Maybe he’d do better to atone for trying to convince us his manic schtick is still funny. He mugs and shouts and dances through this film the way he’s mugged and shouted and danced through all his chat-show appearances over the past decade. Didn’t anybody tell him there were going to be other people in this movie, too?

One of the few truly hilarious moments in the film is Smoochy’s rendition of the song ‘My Step-Dad’s Not Mean, He’s Just Adjusting’. His cheerful sincerity while singing about how mum’s new husband has to be trained like a puppy is spot on, as is his reminder that ‘if he ever hurts you or mommy, what number do you call? 911!’.

The scene is wonderfully accurate in its blend of pop psychology for tots and sing-song catchiness. This is the kind of stuff Smoochy needed more of.

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