Death to Smoochy (2002)

When I was in high school, I caught Death to Smoochy on Comedy Central one time and fell in love. It continued to be one of my favorite comedies in my pre-collegiate days, but since coming to university I have never rewatched it. I decided to cast my newly trained critical eye on it, hoping that one of my youthful joys wouldn’t disintegrate under more sophisticated scrutiny. The end result of this test is that, while I can see the flaws that so many other critics lambaste the movie for, it remains a guilty pleasure.

Death to Smoochy is a film directed by Danny DeVito about the seedy underbelly of the children’s entertainment business. After megastar Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) gets busted for a bribe, network executives Nora and Stokes (Catherine Keener and Jon Stewart) hire squeaky-clean Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton) to replace Randolph as Smoochy the Rhino. DeVito gives himself a supporting role as Sheldon’s manager.

The film is a dark comedy, which seems an appropriate genre for DeVito. It is vulgar throughout, and features corruption that escalates to the point of a (offscreen) decapitation. That this takes place in a business ostensibly based on the happiness of children helps make the film memorable and hilarious. However, it does spend the majority of its time in the misanthropic world of the adults. More humor and interest could have been generated by looking deeper into the children’s world for the story, instead of using the kids as mere accessories to the plot.

The story focuses on a large cast of supporting characters and minor plot threads. Some of the minor characters work better than others, but having all of them is hardly necessary. The film would been stronger with a more concise plot, which also would have improved its runtime that seems to linger. Harsher editing would benefit both the script and the scenes, at least one of which runs on for two jokes too long.

The cast is the film’s strongest quality. Ed Norton plays the title Rhino, a character so naive and well-intentioned that he retrospectively seems like an inspiration for Jack McBrayer’s character Kenneth on 30 Rock. Some of his jokes fall flat, and a lot of them rely on the “naive guy in a corporate world” premise, but Norton’s devotion to the character makes it forgivable and endearing.

Robin Williams had top billing as the psychologically unstable Rainbow Randolph. The role is clearly catered to Williams as an actor, featuring opportunities to use explosive outbursts, talking very quickly, using accents, and even tap dancing into walls. It’s much more vulgar than Williams’ usual film roles, and hearing him scream that he’s “Rainbow F***ing Randolph” is delightful for a while, but even that grows tiresome by the film’s end.

DeVito and Stewart are fine in roles that are really the only roles these two actors ever play. Catherine Keener is probably the weakest of the cast, filling lots of empty space with “ums” and “yeahs”, but I don’t blame her much – her character is atrociously boring and inconsistent. Michael Rispoli has a very memorable performance as an ex-boxer man child; he’s both hilarious and convincing.

DeVito’s direction is stylized, which is appropriate for a world where a man in a foam rhino suit sings a song about being addicted to smack. Extreme camera angles are used, such as to reduce the already-feeble Jon Stewart to a pin-sized punk, and canted angles and low-key lighting abound. There’s also a strangely devout use of match cuts, whether the camera needs to pull back to make it happen or if it’s as weird as matching two heads to oysters. However, even this interesting and skewed approach gets worn out and tired by the end of the film.

In the end, my rewatch of one of my favorite high school films ended up okay. I still found it hilarious and unique, and its story is enticing enough to watch it through to its overextended conclusion. I’m also a fan of highly stylized films, so one where we see careers rise and fall in a single sped-up musical montage appeals to me on that level as well. I’m not ashamed to say that I liked this movie, but I will be the first to admit that its premise and cast should have added up to something much greater than this sum.

Final rating: 7/10

–James A. Janisse

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