A bilious comedy set in the deceptively cheery world of children’s TV, “Death to Smoochy” pushes its dark, smart, clever, cynical, satirical, nasty, provocative and sarcastic instincts to the point of heavily diminished returns — to the point where the very amusing premise just isn’t funny anymore. The enormous talent of everyone involved is evident for all to see, but if an imaginative succession of twisted antics performed by Robin Williams, Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, Danny DeVito and the rest produces but a smattering of half-hearted laughs, something is seriously askew. Star names and the promise of something different will draw a discerning mainstream public, but overall prospects look middling.
This is a picture that could stand to join the Tin Man on a trip to Oz to ask for a heart. Of course, this is DeVito’s stock-in-trade, as many of his films as an actor — “Ruthless People,” “Batman Returns,” “Heist” — and director — “Throw Momma From the Train,” “The War of the Roses” — thrive on their unrestrained depictions of utterly callous, venal individuals. But in this brew conjured by screenwriter Adam Resnick, the relentlessness of the assault, relative easiness of the target, absurdity of some of the plot developments and lack of any convincing flickering humanity anywhere combine to push the viewer away, rather than to invite one to become a co-conspirator in this gleeful skewering of a ripe pop culture commodity.
It would be difficult to top Robin Williams’ description of the material: “It’s Tarantino meets Mr. Rogers. It’s ‘Reservoir Rhino.’ ” In the cutthroat world of network television in which everyone is assumed to be a shark, no one is in a position to fall harder and further than Williams’ Rainbow Randolph due to his position as the star of the Kidnet’s Barney-like top-rated show. So Randolph becomes a pariah when he’s caught accepting a bribe from federal agents posing as parents who want their kid to be prominently featured on his program.
With the egomaniacal Randolph gone, Kidnet exec M. Frank Stokes (Jon Stewart) and show producer Nora Wells (Keener) seek a replacement they can control and find one in the painfully sincere and righteous Sheldon Mopes (Norton), a granola-style singer of touchy-feely ditties who’s reduced to gigs at a Coney Island rehab clinic. The seen-it-all Nora can barely stand to speak to Sheldon, much less countenance working with him, as he’s given to aphorisms such as, “You can’t change the world, but you can make a dent.” But as unimpeachable ethics constitute the sole requirement for the job as Randolph’s successor, Sheldon becomes the web’s new star, Smoochy the Rhino.
Trouble starts when Sheldon is taken under wing by Randolph’s former agent, Burke Bennett (DeVito, with a thin black mustache that practically looks painted on). Immediately told he’s going to headline a kiddy ice show, Sheldon earnestly objects on the basis that he won’t appear anywhere that they sell anything containing refined sugar. In short order, Burke’s cohort and the head of the “charity” affiliated with the ice show, goodfella Merv Green (Harvey Fierstein), begins threatening the naive entertainer. He also comes under attack by Randolph, whose psychoses, in his new status of homeless desperation, have become completely unchecked.
Yet another dark force enters Sheldon’s life in the form of Irish mobster Tommy Cotter (Pam Ferris), a flame-haired big bad mama who muscles the do-gooder to find a place on the show for her moronic brother Spinner (Michael Rispoli). Upside of all this pressure is Burke’s success in winning Sheldon complete artistic control of the show, which allows the star to lord it over the condescending Nora and insist that, “Smoochy doesn’t sell out, that’s it!”
After skating on the edge of satiric credibility for nearly an hour, pic takes a severe tumble when the devious Randolph, heretofore seen only in derelict straits, suddenly gets it together to trick Sheldon into making a special concert appearance, which turns out to be at a massive rally of Smoochy-heiling Nazis. Scene is so far-fetched as to be entirely bogus, with the feeling of something inspired by someone who has just seen “The Producers.”
Incident gets Sheldon fired from his show, but when the truth that he was set up by Randolph comes out, he’s reinstated. This pushes Randolph into full combat mode to achieve the aim of the title, leading to a “Manchurian Candidate”-like climax involving an assassin in the rafters during the ice show Sheldon is finally performing.
There is no question that scripter Resnick knows whereof he writes, having spent years as a scribe on “Late Night With David Letterman,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Get a Life,” among other small screen series. Pic is packed with cutting, waspish, in-the-know humor and attitudes, along with a consistently low opinion of what defines the bottom line with this world’s denizens. Sole exception, of course, is the idealistic Sheldon, but he’s such an insufferably holier-than-thou tree hugger that few are going to cozy up to him, or believe in his slow-burning romance with hard-headed skeptic Nora.
Despite all the outrageous situations, clever turns-of-phrase and laying bare of people’s mercilessly mercenary instincts, “Death to Smoochy” is simply not very likeable or enjoyable. Its aggressiveness becomes overbearing, its unremitting cynicism finally flies off the charts, its would-be happy ending seems a contrivance.
None of this can be laid at the feet of the players, who are uniformly game, energetic and enthusiastic in putting across their characters’ obsessions. Gleefully abandoning his much-criticized sentimental nice guy characterizations of recent years, Williams throws himself into Randolph’s mean-spirited mania with gusto and gets off some fine riffs in a final confrontation with his arch-enemy Sheldon. Norton effectively plays the latter as a guy so convinced of his righteousness that neither extreme poverty nor success can threaten his certainty; Keener is spot-on as the jaded TV producer who may or may not have a genuine center buried somewhere deep inside, and DeVito has his brash agent act down pat.
Among the supporting cast, Rispoli’s loud-mouthed knucklehead is pretty hard to take, but Ferris’s tough gal is particular delight, and she delivers with particular relish one of the script’s best lines in her Irish brogue when asked what she intends to do at an important character’s wake: “Let’s go pray and get shitfaced.”
Tech credits are strong across the boards.