THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Imagine, if you will, the following image: Captain Kangaroo attempting to murder Barney the dinosaur. Odds are you had one of two reactions that to that thought: 1.) “That’s horrible!”; or 2.) “Cool!” If you said #1, there’s probably not much point in reading the rest of this review. If you said #2, then you may already be planning to line up for the comedy Death to Smoochy. Personally, I thought the premise – murder and mayhem set against the backdrop of children’s television programming – was hilarious. The movie comes up short, though, despite a lot of ambition on the part of everyone involved.

Robin Williams stars as a popular kids’ show host known as Rainbow Randolph. His show is like an explosion at a Crayola factory in which all the Oompa-Loompas are killed. The host comes out in a techni-colored dreamcoat and sings songs like “Friends Come in All Sizes” while a chorus of midgets backs him up. Despite his jovial on-air appearance, Randolph is a foul-mouthed drunk who takes bribes in exchange for putting the “little booger-eaters” on his show. Randolph is arrested for his actions and the resulting scandal leaves network executive M. Frank Stokes (Jon Stewart) scrambling for a squeaky- clean replacement.

Edward Norton and Robin Williams play kiddie TV hosts in Death to Smoochy
Enter Sheldon Mopes , a.k.a. Smoochy (Edward Norton), a washed-up performer in a purple rhino costume. How washed-up is he? When discovered by producer Nora (Catherine Keener), he’s performing a feel-good show at a methadone clinic. Sheldon is as scandal-free as they come, a goody-goody who feels his mission in life is to promote manners, good hygiene, and positive thinking to children. Smoochy is given Randolph’s old time slot, which only leads the disposed host to drink more. And the drinking leads to a plan of revenge. Initially, the plan is only to tarnish Smoochy’s image (that particular scene is as funny as it is tasteless). When the plan backfires, he decides his rival must die.

Now that’s one hell of a set-up for a dark comedy. And, for the most part, the set-up works. It’s a lot of fun watching Williams play a hateful pop culture icon for kids. He drinks, he swears (often quite vulgarly), he attacks people. It’s a chance for the actor to walk right up to the edge and jump off. And Norton finds the right note for Sheldon. He’s a little too clean, a little too wholesome for the TV execs who ultimately just want to peddle cereal and toys, not to mention an ice show. The two characters are strong enough to make their feud appealing.

The screenplay by Adam Resnick and the direction by Danny DeVito (who also plays Smoochy’s agent) are ambitious in their desire to make the darkest of comedies about the most good-natured of subjects. Had they remained true to their premise, Death to Smoochy might have worked. Unfortunately, the movie wanders off into weird directions, too often spending time on fringe elements that aren’t that funny to begin with. Like the punch-drunk former boxing champ who wants to be on Smoochy’s show. Or the Irish mob that looks out for Smoochy’s interests. Or the subplot about Merv Green (Harvey Fierstein), a mafioso who stages ice shows for charity and skims money off the top. These elements aren’t particularly amusing and they distract us from what we really want to see: Randolph vs. Smoochy.

I think this could have been a real gonzo comedy classic if the film's focus had stayed where it needed to be. In many ways, children's television is ripe for satire. For example, how many adults do you know who hate Barney? (I know lots.) Why not have a couple scenes suggesting that a portion of the American public actually wants Smoochy to die? Randolph could have started his own anti-Smoochy website and recruited the average nutcase to help him in his scheme. Then Smoochy would have to be on guard everywhere he went. That may or may not be a great idea, but I think it's the kind of thing that would have helped make the picture stronger.

A few major qualms aside, I'm not going to trash this film because of one simple fact: some movies aim low and hit their mark, while others aim high and miss. Death to Smoochy is one of the latter. At times, I laughed hysterically; other times, I was filled with regret that the story wasn’t everything I had hoped it would be. In the end, the picture is a great big mess, but I give the filmmakers a degree of credit for trying. They took a risk here, hoping to make a wildly offbeat and hilarious comedy unlike anything else to ever hit a movie screen, and they failed. I’d rather sit through a film that shot for the moon and missed than one that just shoots fish in a barrel.

( out of four)

Death to Smoochy is rated R for language and sexual references. The running time is 1 hours and 41 minutes.

Return to The Aisle Seat