We stumbled blindly onto Death to Smoochy last night on one of the HBOs, having no idea what it was about. Though bitterly caustic in its depiction of the children’s show racket, Danny DeVito’s black comedy reveals a core of optimistic idealism under the vile doings, and instead of the naif being corrupted by the business, the business is changed by the naif.
Edward Norton is totally believable as a crunchy children’s performer (Smoochy the Rhino of the title), who is brought in to fill the slot left when Robin Williams’ outrageously vulgar, venal (but somehow never over-the-top) Rainbow Randolph is nabbed by the feds for corruption. The central joke of the film is that the entire structure of children’s entertainment is rotting from within, despoiled by the underworld, with everyone and their cousin in on the take.
Not corrupt, but utterly jaded and drained of any semblance of idealism is “KidNet” exec Catherine Keener, who brings with her the lean, cold appeal that so benefitted Being John Malkovich. She is slowly won over by Norton’s uncorruptibility amidst a gang war, Randolph’s maniacal need to crush Smoochy and reclaim his “rightful” spot, an even more debased former children’s host turned hit man, a punch-drunk boxer whom Smoochy befreinds, and when all appears lost, a shockingly happy ending.
A black comedy with a heart of gold, Death to Smoochy is a riot and surprisingly touching.