Death to Smoochy

Directed by Danny DeVito
with Robin Williams, Ed Norton, Catherine Keener, Jon Stewart, etc.

My Rating:

A violent comedy with the irrepressible Robin Williams.
10 Stars if you're seeing Bowling for Columbine instead.

Bitable Bytes:
"...Funny With a Flare...!"
"'All-Star Cast'!"
"Concentrated Humor!"
"(Bowling for Columbine Is) a Great Film!"

What to do while watching:
Go on and laugh. Don't expect too much and the funny parts will seem funnier.

What to eat while watching:
Organic popcorn with organic butter.

I know this will sound like a "friend of a friend" story, but I think it's actually true because I can tell you the name of my source. My friend Mark is friends with a gamer who lives in San Francisco. Robin Williams also lives in San Francisco and, apparently, is also big into role-playing games when he's not making films. My friend Mark's friend is one of the lucky people who regularly plays role-playing games with Robin Williams.

According to what Mark's friend told him, Williams does what he can to keep his professional life and his celebrity from interfering with the dynamic of the gaming group. He insists on being treated as "one of the guys" and refuses to talk about his movies or his life in the public eye. However, about a year and a half ago, Williams crossed his own boundary and asked his gaming friends for their opinions about his latest films and the direction his movie career was going. This was around the time of Patch Adams, Father's Day, Jakob the Liar, and What Dreams May Come.

The D&D geeks had grown used to treating "Rob" as a regular dude and never felt the need to suck up to him. According to Mark, they told him he was losing it, the way Steve Martin went from funny with a flare to sappy with a sag. They told him his latest work was fluff and that his comedic genius was being atrophied by disuse. This conversation convinced Williams to take on weirder, more hard-core roles like Insomnia (2002) and the role of the twisted wacko in Death to Smoochy--or so the story goes.

Who knows what truth has been lost in translation, or what truth there was to begin with. Regardless, Williams has turned his career to darker, weirder territory with Death to Smoochy. To call it a "dark comedy" does injustice to such films as Trust, Broadway Danny Rose, and Bottle Rocket--stories in which both comedic and tragic events transpire while the viewer gets emotionally tied into the characters and the strange obstacles they face. Death to Smoochy is basically a comedy that includes violence and caricatures of insanity. Though the characters are shoddily constructed stereotypes, the format gives Williams a lot of room to spark from his free-associating mind to very funny effect.

The basic tale, riddled with laughable improbabilities, is that KidNet, the biggest children's television programming company, has a hot star, Rainbow Randolph, played by Williams. At the beginning of the film, Randolph is busted for taking bribes and becomes a pariah. The network must find a replacement, and the ably comic but underused Jon Stewart is the network exec who must find him. Stewart sends his embittered assistant, played by Catherine Keener, to fetch Smoochy the Rhino (Ed Norton). Norton is a broadly stereotyped "granola hippie," fully into organic food and idealism. Keener finds him doing a free benefit at a drug rehabilitation center. Norton's simplicity is portrayed by his slight southern twang, which wavers and eventually vanishes through the course of the film.

In spite of being a loser, Smoochy gets put on television and becomes an instant, overnight smash hit success. That must be irony, because it sure isn't realism. When Rainbow Randolph tries to sabotage the show, Smoochy manages a quick save and this makes the network execs give him all kinds of creative power over the show plus an office overlooking Manhattan. Smoochy decides to give his show integrity. But his decision to hawk protein bars and spirulina drinks upsets the network executives who have close ties with candy and soda makers.

In fact, Smoochy's decisions upset all kinds of homicidal philanthropists. Harvey Fierstein is the criminal mastermind behind the Icecapades and all the moneymaking opportunity ice shows include. Danny DeVito is Fierstein's pawn who tries to convince Smoochy to sell out. Did someone say "all-star cast"? There's certainly no deficit of talent here. The stars shine so brightly that it's easy enough not to scrutinize the unlikeliness and superfluity of the tale.

The comedians who star have free reign to be as comical as they like. Well...mainly that's Williams. The other good people in the film play one-dimensional characters that give Williams the space to maneuver though his frenzied antics. Conceptually, it's nowhere near where it is in execution, and the actors are much better than the acting, if you see what I mean. Still in all, it's kind of fun, especially the outtakes and cut scenes tacked onto the end of the video (surely present on the DVD, too). The outtakes are truly funny, or at least more concentrated humor.

That the film did poorly in theaters may have had to do with the divergence in William's career more than the underdeveloped aspects of the film itself (character, plot, etc.); but given what does succeed in theaters, the box-office bombing of Smoochy is a mystery to me. If you have an insight, please share it.

"But we want substance, Gooden! We've read your best films of all time list, and we can't backslide to this kind of piffle!"

I hear you cry.

Go see Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore's latest political documentary. It's a great film. There's no denying that Moore has an agenda, but his argument against the NRA and the laxness of United States gun laws is not single-sided. He himself is an NRA member and isn't opposed to the right to bear arms. Instead, Moore tries to get at the root cause of the disproportionate number of shooting deaths in the U.S. compared to other countries. Ruling out poverty, desperation, availability of guns and ammo, and firearm rights, Moore finds that fear may be the main motivation behind the level of violence in this country.

Our media promotes and encourages fear between citizens and fear of the environment by trumping up the violence around us. For one example, though trick-or-treating has become a thing of the past thanks to our fear of our neighbors, there are only two recorded cases of children dying from Halloween candy, and both of these were perpetrated by relatives of the children. (Moore overlooks the silly yet scary stereotypes of deranged madmen engrained in us by films like Death to Smoochy and Red Dragon.)

There is also a racist slant to our fear, propagated by shows like Cops. A hilarious animated sequence gives some heavy-handed but on-the-mark commentary about this. Guests include Matt Stone, Marilyn Manson, Charlton Heston, and Dick Clark. This is certainly worth seeing: it raises issues and promotes conversation. It gets us to look at our assumptions and tries to get at what's behind tragedies--like the Columbine shooting, the Oklahoma bombing, and 9/11/01--that devastate us so badly. I strongly recommend it.

Want to share a happy story with Gooden?

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For your collection: Death to Smoochy (DVD), Death to Smoochy (VHS)

Gooden's listening to: Make Up In Mass Mind

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