'Death to Smoochy' disappoints from get-go

Posted: Thursday, April 04, 2002

''Death to Smoochy'' comes to you from two people who've mastered the art of edgy comedy:

The director, Danny DeVito, who also directed ''The War of the Roses,'' and appeared in ''Ruthless People'' and ''Get Shorty,'' among others.

And the writer, Adam Resnick, who won an Emmy with the team that wrote for ''Late Night with David Letterman'' in the '80s, served as an executive producer-writer for HBO's ''The Larry Sanders Show'' and was writer-producer of Chris Elliott's sitcom ''Get a Life.''

So you're absolutely justified in expecting that ''Death to Smoochy'' -- with its cast of DeVito, Robin Williams, Edward Norton and Catherine Keener -- will be delightfully, deliriously twisted. Instead, it's a crushing disappointment, and a failure for nearly everyone involved.

This is a movie that believes loud equals funny, that confuses crude with clever, that thinks having Williams repeatedly scream obscenities makes for sidesplitting humor.

This is a movie that is relentless in its cynicism, without a shred of subtlety for balance. Granted, it's a satire of the television industry (an all too easy target), but it didn't have to be oppressively heavy-handed.

Williams, trying to shed his preachy ''Patch Adams'' persona, plays Randolph Smiley, the scheming, boozing star of the highest-rated kids' program on TV. But ''Rainbow Randolph,'' as he's known, gets snagged in an FBI sting for taking bribes from parents who want their kids to get prime face time on his show.

Trying to deflect the scandal, weasely network President M. Frank Stokes (Jon Stewart) searches for a wholesome replacement. He sends his programming executive, Nora Wells (Keener), to get Sheldon Mopes (Norton), a second-rate, crunchy-granola singer who performs as Smoochy the rhinoceros, a puffy, hot pink version of Barney the dinosaur.

Sheldon is so desperate for work when Nora finds him that he's playing gigs at a Coney Island methadone clinic. So he jumps at the chance to spread his shiny, happy message to children on network TV. But he's so idealistic that he balks at the idea of marketing Smoochy breakfast cereal, ice cream and string cheese.

Randolph's former agent, Burke (DeVito), tries to get him to play ball with the help of local Irish mobsters. So does Merv Green (Harvey Fierstein), the head of the Parade of Hope, which Burke warns is ''the roughest of all the charities.''

Meanwhile, Randolph -- who has fallen into poverty and paranoid delirium -- plots his revenge, including a painfully unfunny scene in which he tricks Sheldon into singing at a Nazi rally to ruin his reputation.

There are several funny one-liners, and a couple of truly inspired moments -- including Smoochy's perky little ditty about stepfathers, and his autobiographical ice show.

But after about an hour it feels like the actors are desperately reaching for laughs with what little the script provides them.

And it's hard to care about any of their characters because they're so poorly developed and unapologetically unlikable -- even Sheldon, our hero, is so squeaky clean, he's annoying. He makes a passing reference to having developed Smoochy during an anger management class he was forced to take, but that part of his past is never explored any further.

Keener's character is a jumble of contradictions. She's arbitrarily snide to Sheldon, then sees him with his shirt off while he's changing in his dressing room, and this supposedly sparks smoldering love within her.

And Stewart apparently is incapable of making a good movie. So sharp on ''The Daily Show,'' the Comedy Central news spoof that showcases his comic timing, he seems stifled by the film's structure and his minor role in it.

The movie will probably do well on its first weekend in theaters, based on the idea and the cast. But after that, word of mouth will surely kill ''Smoochy.''

''Death to Smoochy,'' a Warner Bros. release, is rated R for language and sexual references. Running time: 100 minutes. One and a half stars (out of four).

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