Rated R - Running Time: 1:41 - Released 3/29/02

Midway through Danny DeVito's Death To Smoochy, a character looks skyward and cries out, "Oh, God, what does it all mean?!" I couldn't have said it better myself. Written by Adam Resnick (Lucky Numbers), Smoochy tells the strange tale of a kids' TV host whose high moral standards nearly get him killed by just about everyone he knows. Like Numbers, this film's trailer makes it look like a laugh-out-loud comedy, but it's much darker and more surreal, meandering its way through a story that seems like a dream (and not in the good way). I don't know if DeVito intended for the film to have such a bizarre structure and jarring sense of pace, but it doesn't help. What does help is having the talents of Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, and Robin Williams, who at least lend energy and enthusiasm to their roles.

The film starts with popular New York City children's TV host Rainbow Randolph (Williams), whose high ratings and stellar reputation come crashing down when he's caught taking a bribe in an F.B.I. sting. His show is canceled and he's sent packing, and network execs Frank Stokes (Jon Stewart) and Nora Wells (Keener) begin brainstorming to find a replacement. Told to find a host with a squeaky-clean reputation, they sign Sheldon Mopes (Norton), a.k.a. Smoochy The Rhino, an herbalist and activist whose unorthodox methods (that is, wearing a homemade purple rhino suit and singing childlike songs about addiction to the residents of the local methadone clinic) hasn't gotten him anywhere so far.

The Smoochy show is a huge hit, but Sheldon becomes increasingly concerned about the commercialization of his name and likeness. Devoutly opposed to preservatives and processed foods, he insists that the cookies and other products with the Smoochy endorsement contain all-natural ingredients and be produced in environmentally friendly ways, and he flatly refuses to perform in an ice show booked by his agent (DeVito). This causes great concern, as the show was to be sponsored by a shady charity run by crime lord Merv Green (Harvey Fierstein), who is in the habit of sponsoring such shows and skimming large amounts of money off the receipts. Meanwhile, Rainbow Randolph, who blames Smoochy for the downfall of his career, becomes more and more desperate to off the Rhino and return to his place at the top of the heap.

Believe it or not, I've hardly scratched the surface. There are other characters, like an addle-brained ex-boxer (Michael Rispoli), a tavern owner with mob connections (Pam Ferris), and a midget extra (Danny Woodburn), all of whose interaction brings about numerous headache-inducing caveats in the story. The result is that at some point or another almost everyone wants to kill Smoochy, save for the teeming masses of pre-school children who crowd eagerly around him and wait for their cookies in a disturbing ecstasy of anticipation.

Director DeVito has referred to this film as "a cross between Barney and Pulp Fiction." He wishes. His handling of this quasi-operatic essay on the multi-faceted nature of commericalism that surrounds children's television is alternately passionate and pallid, but the whole experience has a made-up-as-they-went-along feeling, giving us the uncomfortable sensation of watching a work in progress that should have been kept under wraps until it was finished. Norton, Keener, and Williams all sparkle at one time or another, but their characterizations are intentionally conflicted, forcing them to make unbelievable personality switches at the last moment. In short, Smoochy deserves a quick and painless execution, which is, ironically, exactly what it will get. ***½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

Current | Archives | Oscars | About | E-Mail