“Death to Smoochy,” a dark, satirical tale of the corruption in kids’ programming, should have been made a few years ago at the height of the anti-Barney campaign, when you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing signs or cartoons calling for the death and preferably violent dismemberment of everyone’s least favorite big purple dinosaur. Unfortunately, “Smoochy,” which could have been the ultimate middle finger to costumed kids’ show hosts, beats us to death with a few repeated jokes. Despite brilliant performances by Edward Norton and Robin Williams, who is finally (and hopefully permanently) breaking free of his smarmy, family-friendly roles, “Smoochy” doesn’t deliver.
Williams plays Rainbow Randolph (imagine Captain Kangaroo on mescaline), the colorful and energetic star of the most popular kids show on TV. He also happens to be a foul-mouthed drunk who takes bribes from over-enthusiastic parents who want their kids on his show. After Randolph is busted by the government and fired from the show for his various crimes and overall corruption, the network is desperate to find a replacement – someone squeaky clean.
Executives Frank Stokes (Jon Stewart) and Nora Wells (Catherine Keener, “Being John Malkovich”) decide on Sheldon Mopes a.k.a. Smoochy (Edward Norton), a big purple rhino who sings about healthy food and wholesome family life. At this point, however, Smoochy’s major gig is a Coney Island methadone clinic, where he sings about “kicking smack” to the tune of “She’ll be comin’ ’round the mountain.”
Stokes and Wells give Sheldon his big break, and Smoochy is an instant success. With millions of adoring fans and a chance to voice his support of soy and friendship, Sheldon is on top of the world. Unfortunately, he has two major problems. Rainbow Randolph, now homeless and bitter, is nursing a major grudge against the carpet-bagging rhino. His thirst for revenge leads him to try to undermine Smoochy in any way he can, including accusations of Nazism and sabotaging the show’s “cookie time” with treats in the shape of certain parts of the male anatomy.
To make things worse, Merv Green (Harvey Fierstein), the head of the Parade of Hope foundation and corrupt businessman, owned a piece of Randolph during his time as host, and he has every intention of getting a taste of Smoochy’s financial success. He sends an agent named Burke (Danny Devito) to gain Sheldon’s trust so they can bring him over to the dark side of crappy merchandise and lucrative ice shows.
Director Danny DeVito and writer Adam Resnick (“Cabin Boy,” “The Larry Sanders Show”) try to fill the movie with biting satire of kids’ programming and commercialization in general, but with a few exceptions, it has no teeth, and the uneven script proceeds to gum you to death with self-conscious dialogue and one bizarre scene after another.
“Death to Smoochy” is dark, but it isn’t as dark as it should be. Despite the presence of violence, adult themes and language that would make a sailor blush, the movie never commits to one course: gritty or glossy, sarcastic or sappy? Every time it seems like it could be getting somewhere with its message or its characters, it veers off, concentrating on Sheldon’s Irish mob friends or Sheldon’s ridiculous relationship with Nora.
Williams is the bright point of the film. Much in the same way that a formerly annoying child star can redefine himself by playing a drug addict on a cop show, Williams is able to recapture his energy and show his darker side, casting aside his saccharine irony-free personas of “Patch Adams” and “Bicentennial Man.”
As strange as this may sound, you can feel your spirits rising and your faith in Williams returning with every growl and utterance of the f-word or “cock and balls.” Unfortunately, Williams doesn’t always play the disturbed Randolph as a believable character. At times, he seems to be doing one of his famous impressions, mimicking the twisted, angry man instead of actually being him.
Norton is hilarious as the innocent Sheldon, whose golly-gee-whiz personality meshes perfectly with Norton’s ability to deadpan. He compares Captain Kangaroo to Jesus without giving us any sense that he gets the joke, adding, “Both of them worked so hard. Especially Jesus.” His songs that he sings to the kids, which he co-wrote, are hilarious and sometimes slightly disturbing, e.g. “My Stepdad’s not mean; he’s just adjusting.”
Unfortunately, the nuggets of wisdom and moments of comic genius are overshadowed by an overzealous attempt to cram as much satire into the film as possible, which leaves you wondering what the film is really poking fun at.