Even if you hate Barney the Dinosaur and similar kiddie-TV vacuities to distraction, you'll probably have problems with "Death to Smoochy," a dark comedy that blows up like an exploding cigar, leaving nothing much behind but smoke, noise and a bad taste.
The movie doesn't fail for lack of talent. Director Danny DeVito and star Robin Williams (as kiddie-show star "Rainbow Randolph" Smiley) seem an unbeatable combination for a juicy satire on contemporary TV. They're two comic geniuses with just the chops and smarts for a dark comedy about the world of kiddie shows - and they also possess enough human sweetness to counterbalance the poison. Here, they're surrounded by other big talents: Edward Norton as Sheldon, the rising star who replaces Rainbow Randolph, and Catherine Keener as cynical TV exec Nora Wells - plus Jon Stewart, Harvey Fierstein, Pam Ferris and DeVito himself (as the ultimate back-stabbing agent, Burke Bennett). With DeVito at the helm and that great cast, you may go in expecting the best. What you can't expect is how unfunny, grating and obnoxious most of "Death to Smoochy" is. It's as if hatred of Barney and his ilk had driven everyone crazy or fogged their judgment.
DeVito, who has been good before with both TV satire (HBO's "The Ratings Game") and children's stories ("Matilda"), at first seems in control. He starts to turn "Death to Smoochy" into an evil fairy tale about a corrupt, sex-crazed TV host, Williams' "Rainbow Randolph," busted for soliciting bribes from parents, who's replaced by the squeaky-clean, unfailingly honest, ecologically and politically correct Sheldon Mopes, a.k.a. "Smoochy the Rhino" (Norton).
Around these two grotesques - Norton's tree-hugging idealist, who wears a purple rhino suit with his own vapidly grinning face sticking out of the mouth, and Williams' showbiz sleaze Rainbow Randolph, a Willy Wonka look-alike who goes psycho and tries to kill his "rival"- are a gallery of gargoyles. There are morally empty, anything-for-ratings executives (Keener as Nora and Stewart as Marion Stokes), conniving agents (DeVito's Bennett), and gangsters and killers (Fierstein as gang lord Merv Green and Ferris as Irish Mafia queen Tommy Cotter). The movie implies that all of them but Mopes - and the people he affects, like the eventually smitten Nora - are on the same bankrupt moral level. And by the end of the film, after all the scams, assassinations, double-crosses, crooked ice shows and a frame-up involving the local Nazi party, most of the characters have hit an ethical ground zero. This is satire by insiders; screenwriter Adam Resnick is an ex-scribe for David Letterman and "The Larry Sanders Show" (as well as the movie "Cabin Boy"), and he savages the bad-taste world of today's TV while also skewering the dead ethics and barren judgment of the hardcase executives behind it all.
It's a funny idea, and these are funny actors. But if "Death to Smoochy" sounds great on paper, it comes across like a dyspeptic nightmare - a relentlessly irritating screw-loose bilefest that has the guts to blaze away at the right targets (mendacity, duplicity, cynicism and greed in the media) but just can't make you laugh much. As George Bernard Shaw once said, "If you want to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh." Resnick should probably paste that motto on his computer, because he seems to be the main culprit. Instead of exposing the usual corny-kiddie-show lies, he's replaced them with different, woozier, nuttier lies. Resnick hasn't made these characters come alive or created a real alternative landscape - like the ones in dark comedy classics such as "Dr. Strangelove," "Network" or DeVito's own "The War of the Roses." Instead, he's just replaced cliches with anti-cliches, which are almost as bad.
Not content with two wacky kiddie-show hosts, Resnick brings in another one, depraved weirdo Buggy Ding Dong (played by Vincent Schiavelli of "Taking Off" and "Cuckoo's Nest"), for an ineffective pastiche of "The Manchurian Candidate" and "The Parallax View." Sheldon's absurd face-in-the-mouth rhino mask seems to exist only to show how a guy in a rhino suit can become a recognizable star. Equally silly is the scene where Sheldon is conned by Randolph into addressing a Nazi rally, where a bunch or rejects from "The Producers" scream "Heil Smoochy!" And I don't have a clue as to why Smoochy and the virulent Nora fell in love, except for the lewd info that she's a kiddie-host concubine.
"Death to Smoochy" is a movie made by people who obviously despise the aggressive banality of shows like "Barney" and are hip to the scandals of most modern TV programming. But for some reason, they don't give us the moral alternative that effective satire requires. Sheldon Mopes is too much of a dope to function as a satisfactory Candide or Jefferson Smith type. And the meanness of the gags keeps souring the whole show. From the very first scenes of the stuporously sunny Randolph bouncing along in his vacuous, pink-clouded TV world and then getting stung by the Feds in a shadowy film-noir dive, everything is telegraphed. "Death to Smoochy" feels like a movie that needs its own laugh track; it's so predictably vicious that, after a while, there's no surprise. DeVito is an actor and filmmaker who usually has perfect judgment on dark comedy, and Williams is a master of wild, spontaneous shpritzing and riffing. They almost always get their laughs, despite Williams' sometime weakness for sentimental kitsch and DeVito's tendency to spread himself thin. Here, they're sandbagged by Resnick's sour, sock-in-the-eye script - and maybe by the fact that in a movie about children's TV, Resnick hasn't come up with one notable child character to react to any of it.
Instead, the kids are yowling, anonymous munchkins and the adults are jabbering four-flushers, creeps, killers and dimwits. It's like a season in PBS hell, with nothing but bad anti-Barney jokes as compensation. Too bad for DeVito, Williams and everyone else (except Keener, who's good before her character goes soft), all of whom are as hobbled by Resnick's script as Sheldon is by his "Smoochy" suit. "Death to Smoochy" is death to satire.
"Death to Smoochy"
Directed by Danny DeVito; written by Adam Resnick; photographed by Anastas Michos; edited by Jon Poll; production designed by Howard Cummings; music by David Newman; produced by Andrew Lazar, Peter Macgregor-Scott. A Warner Brothers release; opens Friday, March 29. Running time: 1:49. MPAA rating: R (language, sexual references).
Randolph Smiley - Robin Williams
Sheldon Mopes - Edward Norton
Nora Wells - Catherine Keener
Burke Bennett - Danny DeVito
Marion Frank Stokes - Jon Stewart
Merv Green - Harvey Fierstein
Spinner Dunn - Michael Rispoli Tommy Cotter - Pam Ferris
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times