Why Haven’t You Seen…? Death to Smoochy

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DIR: Danny DeVito

What’s It All About?
When leading Kids show host, Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) is caught taking a payoff, his employers must find a replacement. Executive Nora Wells (Catherine Keener) finds a candidate in Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), a naive innocent whose character; Smoochy the Rhino becomes a smash hit in Randolph’s time slot, inspiring a vengeful Randolph to attempt to disgrace and eventually murder this usurper.

Why Haven’t You Seen It?
Death to Smoochy vanished in the UK because its release was due just at the time that its UK distributors; Film Four, came up against serious financial problems. This led to the release being delayed for over a year, and when the movie finally emerged it was on a barely promoted DVD with no extras. It also doesn’t help that this is a tough film to advertise; what do you do with a vicious black comedy with a mile wide mean streak and Edward Norton dressed, essentially, as Barney the Dinosaur?

Why Should You See It?
Danny DeVito has actually had a reasonably interesting directorial career, though he’s under recognised for it, and he thrives with dark comedies like The War of the Roses, Matilda and this film. Here, he and writer Adam Resnick take a very different look at what we’ve usually seen presented in a very cuddly fashion; pre-school children’s TV.

This unusual film has an unusual cast. It is jarring, still, to see Edward Norton; Jack from Fight Club, Derek Vinyard from American History X, dressed in a fuchsia coloured rhino suit and singing to a group of children, and yet it’s that very jarring quality that allows the film to work, and Norton’s usual penchant for very dark and extreme characters which makes him such fun as Sheldon Mopes, who couldn’t be any more squeaky clean if he tried, and there is a great comic joy in seeing Sheldon, finally, discover how harsh reality can be and how ruthlessly people can behave.

Robin Williams, on the other hand, is no stranger to schmaltzy characters, and he seems to be having a great time here, indulging a dark side which is, in recent years, all too seldom teamed with his astounding comic gifts. His manic performance keeps the laughs coming, as does the script, by always escalating the lengths that Randolph is prepared to go to to embarrass Smoochy (leading to an hilarious sequence in which Sheldon, unbeknownst to him, is booked to appear at a Neo-Nazi rally).

There are many sub-plots; the two main ones being Sheldon’s relationship with Nora (Catherine Keener is as good and as magnetic as ever) and a gangster subculture trying to get Sheldon to take bribes, as Randolph did in the past, and while this abundance of plots can make the film feel a bit scattershot, it also leas to a lot of fun characters and amusing gags (a gangster’s retarded brother becoming Smoochy’s sidekick is particularly funny).

As dark and cynical as it is, Death to Smoochy is always fun. Sheldon’s childlike joy at his job draws you in, as do his perky but pointed songs, which include ‘We’ll get you off that smack (Oh yes we will)’ and ‘My stepdad’s not mean he’s just adjusting’ and even the more puerile jokes (Randolph bakes penis shaped cookies for Sheldon to use on his show) are executed in a way that is more silly than it is gross.

De Vito’s direction is colourful, but the film’s lighting makes it feel more like a noir than a mainstream comedy, creating a look that is somewhat unique, and frankly it’s just visually interesting, and funny, seeing a fuchsia rhino in a noirish setting. DeVito’s grasp slips slightly when it comes to tone, as the pretty brutal violence and swearing can feel odd set against the rest of the film, but he’s got good command of the performances (including his own, as a kids TV talent agent) and gets interesting work and strong chemistry from his stars.

Death to Smoochy is a smart and funny film which should be better known, but which was hobbled by circumstance and perhaps by being that little bit too different for a mass market to engage with. It’s well worth checking out.

Standout Moment

All of Smoochy’s songs are priceless, but this one is perhaps the funniest.

How Can You See It?
Both UK and US DVDs are available, but neither has much in the way of extras.

Next Week
CLOSE TO HOME: friendship and politics in the story of two women doing national service in Jerusalem.