The Movie Defender: Death to Smoochy (2002)

Only enormously talented people could have made Death to Smoochy. Those with lesser gifts would have lacked the nerve to make a film so bad, so miscalculated, so lacking any connection with any possible audience. To make a film this awful, you have to have enormous ambition and confidence, and dream big dreams. –– Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

There are a few laughs, but I’m not sure that a comedy is supposed to make you recoil, which is what Smoochy does. — Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times

You can feel desperation buzzing around Danny DeVito’s Death to Smoochy like flies around a corpse, and there are few things less funny than desperate comedy. — Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com

I first came up with the idea for The Movie Defender at some point in late 2008 or early 2009–I can’t remember which.  I sat on the idea for quite a while, kicking around thoughts of starting up either a blog or a web site dedicated only to this one column.  But I’m lazy and the column never really progressed beyond the idea stage until D.B. started to develop what would become The Parallax Review.  At one point, while discussing the philosophy behind the site, D.B. casually mentioned to me that it could be a home for The Movie Defender, if I wanted.  I jumped at the chance and the rest is very short-lived–but noble–history.

I tell you this because when I first thought of The Movie Defender, I had three movies at the front of my mind: I Know Who Killed Me, Doomsday, and Death to Smoochy.

All three films flopped financially and were savaged by critics, but I felt they were all unjustly maligned.  I Know Who Killed Me became the inaugural subject of the column because it was the most infamous and had a pseudo-relevance due to Lindsay Lohan’s ongoing legal troubles.  After a few months, I got around to writing up a defense of Neil Marshall’s Doomsday after D.B. viciously attacked Marshall’s Centurion, a film I eventually saw, enjoyed, and–in a rare moment of contention–argued forcefully in favor of during an episode of The Parallax Podcast.  But I never got around to writing up Death to Smoochy because I feared that it wasn’t as good as I remembered it being.

This was a real fear for every Movie Defender subject that I took on.  Occasionally, I would watch a film that didn’t live up to my memories of it and I’d have to scrap plans to write it up, but that was a rarity.  But for some reason, I had the nagging fear that Death to Smoochy, which I had not seen in nearly ten years, was actually the awful train-wreck that everyone accused it of being.  When I decided to resurrect The Movie Defender, I felt it was time to finally take another look at the film.  I’m glad I did.

Robin Williams plays Rainbow Randolph, a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, cynical son-of-a-bitch.  He also happens to be the host of the number one daytime children’s program in the country.  When he gets busted for taking bribes from undercover agents posing as parents to get their child on his show, he loses his job, his money, and his reason for living.

Desperate to find a squeaky clean replacement for Rainbow Randolph, network executives Stokes (Jon Stewart, sporting a ridiculously bad haircut) and Nora (Catherine Keener) turn to Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton).

Sheldon is a politically correct do-gooder of the highest order.  He’s a vegan who eats tofu hotdogs on gluten-free buns.  He volunteers at a methadone clinic, singing songs about the evils of drugs to near-catatonic heroin addicts.  He is also unfailingly polite to everyone he comes into contact with, never swears, drinks alcohol, or raises his voice in anger.  In short, he is the perfect replacement for Rainbow Randolph and an instant headache for Nora who has to school him in the cutthroat ways of network television.

Sheldon has created a character named Smoochy the Rhino to base his show around.  Smoochy is a hideous, purple monstrosity that still allows Sheldon’s goofy, grinning face to show through to the audience.  As Smoochy, Sheldon performs songs like “My Stepdad’s Not Mean, He’s Just Adjusting” and encourages kids to avoid sugary treats in favor of organic fruits and vegetables.

Much to the shock of everyone at the network, Smoochy is a hit.  But with ratings success comes trouble for Sheldon.  He takes on a shady agent (Danny DeVito) who negotiates a lucrative deal for Sheldon that gives him control of all Smoochy merchandising.  When Sheldon refuses to play ball with the network and create sugary Smoochy cereals and cheap plastic Smoochy toys, he finds his stock falling with Stokes while Nora slowly comes to respect his sincerity.  But Sheldon’s biggest problems come in the form of a Mafia outfit that makes money off the ice shows that Rainbow Randolph used to put on.  The head of the Mafia (Harvey Fierstein) expects Sheldon to go along with the racket and promises unpleasant violence if he doesn’t come around.

And then there’s Rainbow Randolph.  Randolph has been forced to live in the streets, shamed for what he’s done and blaming Sheldon for his problems.  As he grows more deluded and angry, Randolph begins plotting ways to disgrace Sheldon and get his old life back.

This is a hell of a lot of plot for a first act and that’s without even getting into the Irish Mafia outfit that takes a special interest in Sheldon’s continued success and well-being.  Admittedly, the film teeters on the edge of a cliff, ready to fall into the abyss of satirical overkill before something unexpected happens: Sheldon grows from a one-note hippie joke into a character worth rooting for.  In the midst of the aggressive cynicism and heavy-handed satirical jokes, Sheldon becomes a likable, somewhat too earnest protagonist whose quest to improve the world goes from being mocked to encouraged, a surprising turn for a movie directed by the ever-subversive Danny DeVito.

The fact that Sheldon turns out to be such a sweet, gullible character gives Death to Smoochy the moral center needed to ground DeVito’s bleak view of network television politics and merchandising aimed at children.  Sheldon also stands as the rebuttal to many critical complaints that the film is strictly an ugly exercise in cynicism without a heart or connection to recognizable humanity.  He may be a little too over-the-top at points (his fallback phrase of “How do you like that?” becomes annoying by the hour mark), but Sheldon is the perfect straight man for some acerbic one-liners delivered with perfect timing by DeVito, Keener, and Williams.

The film also works as a reminder of Norton’s talent and Williams’s nimble ways with profanity.

Norton takes a character in Sheldon who could have been beyond annoying and gives him a childlike enthusiasm that is genuine and infectious.  Seemingly doing his best Woody Harrelson impression from Cheers, he makes naïveté an endearing trait and never once breaks his nerdy persona to engage in vain leading man posturing.  It’s a forgotten great performance by one of the best screen actors of the last fifteen years.

Much was made in reviews of Williams paying penance for family friendly schmaltz like Flubber and Patch Adams by taking on the supporting role of Rainbow Randolph.  Maybe this is true because the Robin Williams on display in Death to Smoochy is a desperate man–funny and profane–but also hanging on by a thread; a self-loathing loser incapable of carrying out revenge or getting on with his life.

I never particularly cared for Williams’s manic brand of stand up and many of his comedic film roles unfortunately played off that persona, but occasionally he was able to put his decent acting chops to use in bizarre dark comedies that have been all but forgotten (The Survivors, Cadillac Man, The Best of Times).  Death to Smoochy seems to fall in line with those films in that it barely registers on his filmography.  But the film might be the best example of Williams being able to modulate his usual manic persona into the cry of desperation it actually is.  Rainbow Randolph is a man who is scared to death of being ignored and forgotten.  Considering his omnipresence in television and film for the past thirty years, no matter how awful the project (Old Dogs, anyone?), I think Williams has the same fear, making him perfectly cast here.  He also has the world’s best delivery of profanity, something easily forgotten through his years as a family friendly entertainer.

Death to Smoochy was written by Adam Resnick.  Resnick is a writer with a very schizophrenic output.  On the positive side, he did stellar work on Late Night with David Letterman, The Larry Sanders Show, and the short-lived Chris Elliot sitcom Get a Life.  On the negative end of the spectrum, he wrote for the God-awful 1994-95 season of Saturday Night Live, the miscalculated John Travolta comedy Lucky Numbers, and the brilliant or idiotic–depending on your point of view–Cabin Boy.

Death to Smoochy embraces the off-kilter tone and sense of humor that run through all of those projects.  Fortunately, the solid work by the cast and DeVito’s stylish and energetic direction are enough to bring the film down on the positive side of Resnick’s filmography.

Admittedly, the satirical elements of the film are obvious.  The insider’s jaded and misanthropic view of children’s programming has been effectively skewered by The Simpsons through Krusty the Clown for over twenty years but Matt Groening and company were always restrained by network censors.  It’s doubtful they could have ever pulled off something as raunchy (but still funny) as Death to Smoochy’’s cookie scene or introduce an even more debauched former children’s show host (Vincent Schiavelli) who is strung out on heroin and apologizes for smelling like urine.  Perhaps DeVito and Resnick take these jokes too far, but I appreciated their willingness to cross that line in pursuit of a laugh.

In an era of homogenized studio films that all look and sound alike, Death to Smoochy is jarring, obnoxious, dirty minded, and yes, funny.  In spite of the obvious jokes and the too-busy first act, I laughed a lot during the film.  That’s a reaction I can’t ignore, no matter how many respected critics say otherwise.

Here’s an awful trailer that turns Rainbow Randolph into the protagonist.  Once again, terrible marketing helps sink a good movie.

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