The UnPopular Opinion: Death to Smoochy
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
**** SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
Dark comedy comes in two flavors: satirical and mean. The satirical dark comedy takes a topic like death or war and twists it into a joke of itself. Think DR. STRANGELOVE. A mean dark comedy, like Peter Berg’s VERY BAD THINGS, makes you laugh at the most reprehensible behavior imaginable, like friends murdering each other. Dark comedies are very hard to pull off, but when done right they can be instant classics.
Danny DeVito’s DEATH TO SMOOCHY is one of those dark comedies that is both satirical and mean. While it may not make many top ten lists, I think it is a hilariously twisted look at the world of children’s television and showcases one of Robin Williams great turns as a mean son of a bitch. Add to that a sexy Catherine Keener, a poorly haircut Jon Stewart, and a naively brilliant Edward Norton. The movie was a box office flop, recouping only $8 million on a $50 million budget. The critics ripped it a new one and fans ignored it. But, despite a growing cult status on DVD, most people are missing out.
Rainbow Randolph's set is made up of dollar signs and gold coins. Real subtle.
DEATH TO SMOOCHY shares the same thematic feel as DeVito’s classic THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN. Both involve complex revenge schemes that go awry. In MOMMA, both DeVito and Billy Crystal played nice characters forced to act badly to off a mean old woman. DEATH TO SMOOCHY, however, is populated by several unlikely characters, mainly Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams). Randolph hosts a very popular show for children, which allows him the ability to bribe parents in exchange for their children being featured on TV. This leads to Randolph’s downfall within the first minutes of the movie which leaves the network in need of a replacement. They turn to Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), a country bumpkin with dreams of becoming a big time kid’s entertainer. As Mopes’ character of Smoochy, a very Barney-like purple rhino, begins the path to superstar, Randolph becomes obsessed with vengeance on those he feels wronged him. What follows is two characters on opposite paths who both find themselves torn between reality and the fiction of celebrity.
Danny DeVito uses extreme angles and heavy shadows to give DEATH TO SMOOCHY a very noir-ish feel while also utilizing the surreal nature of the television sets. None of these characters feel realistic in their actions yet at the same time you can almost relate to what they are going through. Robin Williams was able to play up his manic personality to the nth degree since his character was a little kooky to begin with and now is just insane. Edward Norton balances on the fine line between naïve idiot and good-natured guy. You can never quite tell if he is just stupid or if Norton is giving him a wide-eyed innocence to accentuate the evil and greedy nature of the Network Executives as embodied by Marion Stokes (Jon Stewart) and Burke Bennett (Danny DeVito).
Don't worry, kids! Its a rocket ship!
There is an unnecessary subplot featuring an Irish gangster which forces a criminal element into the movie that is not needed. Having these characters turn on each other in varying degrees of violence is enough for the movie to work. The body count piles as does the profanity. Williams has several classic meltdowns that I repeat to this day. The one involving a penis shaped cookie is one of my favorites.
There are many moments of levity in the movie, but they all take very twisted turns. You find yourself laughing at jokes related to bestiality, midgets, heroin addicts, and deviants all beneath the guise of a children's show. There is nothing subtle in DEATH TO SMOOCHY, which likely led to the critical drubbing it received. DR. STRANGELOVE was steeped in political humor that gave it a message that related to the Cold War era it was mocking. When you make a film that mocks, to an extent, the industry in which it is being created, you are likely going to alienate those within your industry. Hollywood does not tend to mock itself very well.
I wonder what Robin Williams' crazy face looks like?
DeVito directed from a screenplay written by Adam Resnick, a former writer for the Chris Elliot series GET A LIFE as well as THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW. So, the script is not without a satirical bend. The whole movie mocks the corporate television business as well as the greed companies place on marketing items to children. Like any great satire, DEATH TO SMOOCHY deals in extremes. It does not pull any punches and, in fact, lands almost every one of them. The movie is consistently dark and demented and only moves towards an uplifting perspective at the very end. Even then, the movie still feels like it will crown no winners or losers but will be happy to have rained on your parade. If anything, DEATH TO SMOOCHY is a feel bad movie that makes you laugh, even though the moral is that the only way to rage against the machine is to join it.
I encourage those of you who have not seen this movie to check it out. DeVito has directed only one other movie since DEATH TO SMOOCHY. 2003's DUPLEX starring Drew Barrymore and Ben Stiller was another dark comedy which did poorly at the box office. Both DEATH TO SMOOCHY and DUPLEX share a common visual style and comedic tone, but DEATH TO SMOOCHY actually has a message behind the madness. Check it out and see if that message resonates with you as much as it did with me.