Death To Smoochy (2002)

Info SidebarDeath To Smoochy is a truthfully bizarre movie about a couple of kids TV show hosts who battle it out for ratings supremacy. The hosts are kind of like clowns in that they are scary, not particularly funny, and somehow still deeply in favour with the children. They are not Michael Myers scary though; they are completely devoted to their craft, which includes ice skating in giant purplish-pink rhino costumes. Imagine walking into a dreamland zoo where all the animals are humans in costumes, and the zookeepers spin around in rainbow-coloured blazers, and all the animals and keepers occasionally spring from their enclosures to entertain you. Now throw in some kids and you’ve got Death To Smoochy.

This is a movie fit for a director like Terry Gilliam. It is zany, dark in its humour, irreverently political, all hidden behind the bubblegum gloss of its production design. So it might come as a small shock to learn that it is not directed by Gilliam but by Danny DeVito, whose humour is usually boisterous. The plot flows with the ferocity of a gushing river, but the river is too long with one too many bends. After an hour it feels like every conflict is late for a resolution.

I cannot decide if I dislike this movie or admire its bravery. Roger Ebert derided it in his half-star review, calling it “odd, inexplicable and unpleasant”. Odd, yes. Inexplicable, maybe. Unpleasant, I’m not so sure. There is nothing pleasant about it, but there is nothing outwardly unpleasant either. I took pleasure in seeing Robin Williams play the rare villain, and in Edward Norton prancing around in the rhino suit, constantly upholding the moral fibre of his character by refusing to say bad words and giving in to temptation. His values are so pristine that sin must come to him in a foreign language.

Williams plays Rainbow Randolph, the singing, hopping, skipping host of a Kidnet primetime children’s show. On the show he’s all smiles, but off screen he resembles a mob boss who’s lost his posse; parents pay him to put their kids on TV. One day he gets caught by the FBI. Kidnet fires him, and now the show’s producer, Marion (Jon Stewart), and his partner Nora (Catherine Keener) must find a replacement. Who better to outdo a dancing clown than a dancing rhinoceros named Smoochy? (I am almost convinced his name is Smoochy so that he’ll get to kiss a woman at some point and produce a pun).

Nora has a secret fetish for kids show hosts. Marion is a snivelling weasel who entangles himself in a nefarious subplot that never quite makes itself clear. The subplot involves a charitable organisation — that’s not so charitable — and its leader Merv (Harvey Fierstein), who wants to use Smoochy and his spot on TV to his benefit. How and why? I cannot help you there. The subplot’s all wishy-washy.

Rainbow Randolph despises Smoochy for stealing his place, and Smoochy is a lost child amidst a bog of conspiracy and double-crosses. There is also the appearance of a retired kids show host (Vincent Schiavelli), who has since lost himself to alcohol and drugs and has taken up assassinations as a hobby. Business for him can’t be very lucrative, I suspect — he is about as steady in his aim as Barney the Dinosaur on a tightrope. Everyone comes together at the end, which is a festival of song and dance on an ice rink. The bad guys get their comeuppance and Smoochy gets his pun.

I’ve travelled back and read this review a number of times. It all sounds kind of crazy, which it is. We’ve got a clown, a rhino, a lust-drunk woman, a couple of gangsters, a lot of profanities and killings, and nowhere to go. Maybe Death To Smoochy is one of those movies that has to be seen with marijuana, or LSD. Or maybe not at all.


Best Moment | Edward Norton acting like an idiot in the rhino suit.

Worst Moment | Can’t think of one, but it’s there somewhere.

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