A scene from 'Death to Smoochy'
Courtesy Photo
3 stars 109 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, March 29, 2002
Directed by Danny DeVito

Starring Robin Williams, Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, Danny DeVito, Jon Stewart, Harvey Fierstein, Pam Ferris, Michael Rispoli


The small screen won't diminish this comedy. If anything it will add a layer of irony.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 09.17.2002


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Saccharine no longer, Williams gets wicked as a psycho clown in twisted, tart farce 'Death to Smoochy'

By Rob Blackwelder

It's so comforting to see Robin Williams in yet another family movie, playing a psychotic kiddie show clown fired from his job and bent on murdering the guy in the purple rhino suit who took his place...

Hey! Wait a minute!

Truth be told, it is so refreshing to see Robin Williams turn 180 degrees from the string of insultingly innocuous and sappy fiascoes he's been making almost habitually for the last several years ("Bicentennial Man," "Patch Adams," etc.) and dive headlong into "Death to Smoochy," a relentlessly dark farce that takes place in the fictitiously cutthroat world of children's television.

Williams plays Rainbow Randolph, a corrupt charlatan megastar from a kiddie network who gets bounced from his own show after being busted for accepting bribes from parents wanting to see their children front and center on TV.

While Randolph finds himself suddenly broke, homeless and seething with deranged wrath, the program's callous producers (Jon Stewart in a bad Beatles/Caesar hairdo and slinky Catherine Keener playing a variation on her office hellcat from "Being John Malkovich") desperately seek a squeaky-clean replacement from a list of down-on-their-luck costumed buffoons.

"Buggy Ding Dong?" she suggests. "Heroin mule," he replies ironically. And so it goes until they arrive at Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), a.k.a. Smoochy the Rhino, a principled chump living in optimistic hope of being discovered while performing "regular Friday night gigs at a Coney Island methadone clinic" out of the goodness of his heart.

Discarding his homemade costume (a boxer's padded sparring helmet spray-painted purple served as Smoochy's head) for a super-deluxe Barney-like rhinoceros suit, Sheldon slides giddily into Randolph's time slot. He soon becomes a national sensation by singing songs like "My Stepdad's Not Mean, He's Just Adjusting" while happy tykes dance with midgets in miniature rhino get-ups. But it isn't long before naive, warm-fuzzy, wheat-grass sipping Sheldon is butting heads with network suits over turning Smoochy into a shill for merchandise, candy and soda.

Meanwhile, Randolph starts sneaking onto the set to sabotage Smoochy's show. "Welcome to Fatty Arbuckle land!" he cackles maniacally as he substitutes the rhino's sugar-free soy goodies for the studio audience kids with a bag of obscenely-shaped cookies.

Written by "Late Night" and "Larry Sanders Show" vet Adam Resnick and directed by Danny DeVito, "Death to Smoochy" is wickedly twisted, thorny and tart. It takes place in a comical world where, for example, children's charities are run like mafia syndicates (gravel-voiced Harvey Fierstein is a hoot as an enforcer from a foundation called "Parade of Hope"). And the movie only gets weirder as Randolph's insane campaign against Smoochy escalates toward an absurdly operatic ice-show finale.

Every performance in the picture is pitch-perfect for its pitch-black sense of humor, especially Norton's subtly subversive take on sweet, scrupulous Sheldon, who is so harmless that orange juice spiked with liquid alfalfa gets him drunk. His wholesome Mr. Rodgers-like persona hides a dungeonous dark side that peeks out from time to time and you're never quite sure if he might snap.

Keener just keeps getting funnier as her caustic TV producer gets the hots for Sheldon even though she can't stand him, exposing her past as a kiddie show groupie who has slept with almost every costumed entertainer in her channel's history. DeVito makes an appearance too, as a greedy greaseball who becomes Smoochy's agent in order to set him up to take a fall at the behest of the charity thugs.

But the film might not have worked at all without Williams' limitless capacity for deviant lunacy, which is put to good use by DeVito. The director gives his star just enough leash to frolic in the swarthiest recesses of his talent without letting him hang himself by going overboard into unchecked improvisation.


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