Comics waste their time in `Smoochy'

Review: All is not sweetness and light in the world of kids' television.

March 29, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Monty Python troupe used to joke that the difference between life and a Saturday Night Live skit is that life is finite. Think of an SNL skit extended for an hour and a half and you have Death to Smoochy.

The script, by hip comedy writer Adam Resnick (he was an executive producer and writer on HBO's terrific The Larry Sanders Show), is like a feeble, R-rated version of an X-rated R. Crumb coloring book. The director, Danny DeVito (who did the marvelous Matilda) has filled it in as if he were a demented kindergartner. This movie's mix of garish colors with a vertiginous camera may give you visual nausea, like watching a pound of M&M's whirling through the window of a clothes dryer.

Death to Smoochy derives almost all its humor from the incongruity of people acting cutthroat in the candy-colored world of children's television. The rest of the humor simply comes from swearing and silly names.

The movie starts out as a scabrous revenge farce about a smarmy host named Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams). When he's caught accepting bribes from parents whose kids he might showcase on his program, disloyal and evil network executive Frank Stokes (Jon Stewart) immediately deposes him. Stokes and company replace him with the most squeaky-clean entertainer they can find: Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton). Mopes' character, Smoochy the Rhino, currently doing a gig at the Coney Island Methadone Clinic, is, beneath his rhino's horn, a fuchsia-colored mouthpiece for clean living and vegetarianism.

The movie lacks the conviction to make this Smoochy-Rainbow Randolph rivalry a plush-purple version of a wrestling smackdown. (Most of the time, Norton's Smoochy is too high-minded to experience bitterness.) Instead, Resnick and DeVito focus their attack on the usual forces of commercialism, from network hacks who are always thinking of toy spinoffs to charity operators who skim their take off the top of events like Smoochy on Ice.

The B-side of this tired iconoclasm is a jokebook sentimentality. Not only does Williams' Rainbow Randolph achieve redemption, but Smoochy's direct antagonist at the network (Catherine Keener), a careerist on the order of Faye Dunaway in Network, turns out to be a true lover of great kids' shows who's been let down by too many clowns with feet of clay.

For much of the film, the dialogue consists of profanity spewing from Williams' ferocious middle-aged buffoon and putdowns spouting from Keener's witch with a heart of gold. And the action consists of Rainbow Randolph hatching harebrained schemes like hoodwinking Mopes into performing Smoochy at a Nazi rally. (Nazis should be retired as comedy gimmicks, or reserved for the genius of Mel Brooks.) DeVito has become a tone-deaf director. He dotes on an addled ex-boxer named Spinner (Michael Rispoli), a lovable screw-up, then tries to wring laughs from his demise.

The last few years, Williams has been struggling to change the virtuous image that's stuck to him like a bright red nose. But this isn't the way out. Stewart and Keener are wasted, and Norton never succeeds in animating his live-action-cartoon hero.

Part of the problem is that the script cuts Norton off at Smoochy's baggy knees. We learn that Mopes became a gentle soul through anger management, but we can't imagine what he was like when he felt clinical rage. The two sides of the character don't connect. Even when Mopes goes through a brief tailspin and sinks to eating fast-food burgers, he's no more volatile or menacing than the nerdy alien played by French Stewart on 3rd Rock from the Sun (whom he somewhat resembles). If Mopes needed anger management, Norton needs talent management. His Smoochy can't die because his Smoochy never really lives. The best you can say about Norton in a one-dimensional comedy like this is that he really puts the dead into deadpan.

To call Death to Smoochy satire - or parody, burlesque, or even lampoon - would be too generous. The moviemakers merely glide on the thin ice of yesterday's cynicism.

SUN SCORE

*(one star)

Death to Smoochy

Starring Robin Williams, Edward Norton, Catherine Keener and Danny DeVito

Directed by Danny DeVito

Rated R for language and sexual references

Running time 105 minutes

Released by Warner Bros.

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