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Death to Smoochy

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Death to Smoochy has been tempting me for some time in my local DVD rental joint. The cast is impressive, and it’s directed by Danny DeVito – he has created enough interesting dark comedies for me to give any of his offerings a chance.

Black comedies are difficult to pull off successfully. One mistake is to make the characters so unlikeable that you enjoy it when awful things happen to them. Or, the mix between tragedy and comedy is uneven – it’s a tough call to get the balance right. Death to Smoochy doesn’t wholly succeed, but is saved by the fact that the rough passages are towards the beginning, and there are enough excellent sequences as the film progresses to smooth it out.

The film revolves around the commercial world of children’s programmes on American TV, and it makes some excellent points about their exploitation of the kiddie market. ‘Rainbow’ Randolph Smiley (Robin Williams), a popular host of a children’s show, is a jaded borderline-psychotic who gets caught using his show to make money from dubious sources. In a crisis, the TV network demands its two executives, the sardonic Nora Wells (Catherine Keener) and ass-kisser Marion Frank Stokes (Jon Stewart), to find a squeaky-clean alternative, who won’t cause any more scandals.

Enter Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton) aka Smoochy the Rhino. Sheldon is the real deal: a children’s entertainer with ethics. Smoochy is an instant hit, but Sheldon clashes particularly with Nora over the network’s plans for a Smoochy merchandising blitz. Initially sceptical of Sheldon’s altruistic claims, Nora slowly realises that Smoochy’s creator does believe in giving children a positive icon without any lucrative franchising. Sheldon’s resistance to the proposed shady deals gives his agent, Burke Bennett – played with slimy aplomb by Danny DeVito – and Stokes, headaches and a significant loss of revenue.

The major source of drama in the first part of the movie comes from the bitter, washed-up Randolph. Williams plays the Smoochy-hating ex-children’s host in typical OTT fashion, and part of the problem is that Williams hijacks the film in places. Another sub-plot, involving a sinister cartel of children’s charities who demand Smoochy’s endorsement, is forced and unfunny. The involvement of an Irish criminal organisation does provide a number of laughs, much to my surprise. The gang is headed up by Tommie Cotter, who is played by Pam Ferris with gusto.

What saves the film is the ironic commentary on the state of children’s entertainment, and Ed Norton’s portrayal of the sympathetic Sheldon Mopes, who skirts the border of irritating naivete to come out as winningly sympathetic. Williams reigns in his frothing performance in the latter part of the movie, and manages to convincingly transform Rainbow Randolph into a man who has a good heart underneath his neuroses.

It’s a flawed movie, but DeVito directs the film with assurance, and uses lots of skewed shots, and extreme close-ups, to indicate the deranged, and false, nature of some of its characters. Several scenes in the film reminded me of the freak-show atmosphere that French director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, conjures up (such as in Delicatessen).

If you like your humour in the slapstick, macabre, and poignant vein, and abhor much of the costumed antics of modern children’s TV, then Death to Smoochy is worth renting.

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About Maura McHugh