Bad premise gives `Smoochy' the kiss of death
By C. SPENCER BEGGS
For anyone who ever secretly wondered if Barney was actually a friendless alcoholic or Elmo had to attend court-ordered anger management classes, "Death to Smoochy" may seem like a deviously pleasurable romp through the sordid version of children's entertainment. Unfortunately, director Danny DeVito fails to deliver anything more sinisterly pleasing than stealing two pieces of fruit from the dining hall: sounds like it's living on the edge until you realize that you now have two bruised apples.
When Rainbow Randolf (played by Robin Williams), a psychologically disturbed children's show host, is busted in an FBI sting for taking bribes to put children on his show, the scandalized network bigwigs order their yes-man lackey, Stokes (played by Jon Stewart), and his sexually harassed partner, Nora (played by Catherine Kenner), to find a squeaky clean replacement. Enter Smoochy: a soy dog-eating, purple dinosaur suit-wearing Good Samaritan who plays children's songs for free in a methadone clinic in the slums. Also known as the perfect sucker for Stokes and Nora's manipulation.
Of course, the children's television world isn't all fun and games — then again, neither is this movie. Between Rainbow Randolf's demented attempts at revenge (which include, among other things, an overly elaborate speaking engagement set up at a Nazi party rally) and clandestine advice from Smoochy's scumbag agent, Burke (played by Danny DeVito) and a fairly pointless romance between Smoochy and Nora, moviegoers will wonder why the movie isn't funny (despite a well-timed Notre Dame Fight Song before a twisted children's song entitled "My Stepdad isn't Mean, He's just Adjusting"). It's truthfully hard to put a finger on the exact reason; the movie seems to have all the ingredients for a good film. It's the recipe that spoils this film.
The big problem with "Death to Smoochy" is that it's not dark enough to be a dark comedy and not absurd enough to be a comedy. Frankly, the movie can't get over its initial premise, which its producers apparently think is hysterical. It's not.
Williams' sad clown act is more than worn-out and so is his funny clown act. Norton puts in an adequate performance as an ultra-squeaky-clean overgrown Boy Scout, but the fact that his character is completely unchanging throughout the movie makes for an eye-glazing hour and a half.
The strongest performances come from the Stewart and Kenner. Stewart's consummate smarmy jibing that he perfected from working on "The Daily Show" and receiving countless schoolyard beatings in elementary school is nothing short of artful. And Kenner manages to balance sexy and abrasive well. The banter between the two, which is about as potty-mouthed as an episode of Southpark on methyl amphetamine, is razor sharp and lively.
Luckily, DeVito is an excellent director and manages to save his all-star cast from utter embarrassment. With credentials like directing "The War of the Roses" and "Throw Momma From the Train" as well as being an executive producer of "Pulp Fiction," DeVito squeezes a few laughs out of a movie that in other hands would have gone straight to video.
DeVito has a keen eye for interesting cinematography and the movie is edited well. But the half-witted premise of "Smoochy" is its kiss of death.
Contact C. Spencer Beggs at email@example.com.
All Scene Stories for Thursday, April 11, 2002