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DEATH TO SMOOCHY

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Robin Williams, Edward Norton, Danny DeVito, Catherine Keener, Jon Stewart
Director: Danny DeVito
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 109 Minutes
Release Date: September 17, 2002

“Bastard Son of Barney! Die! Die, stuffed ball of fluff! Illegitimate Teletubbie! Die, you Mupppet from hell! Die, you foam motherf***er!”

Film ***

Barney the Dinosaur may be way past his prime, but I’m much convinced that the one time purple and popular television personality never faced an ordeal quite like Smoochy the Rhino. In fact, if there’s an aspect of Danny DeVito’s dark satire, Death to Smoochy, that is disappointing, it’s the fact that this film wasn’t released during the height of Barney’s popularity. I’m pretty sure that kids and parents all across the globe would react with their lower jaw to the floor.

Nevertheless, the movie at hand still holds true to its subject matter, and plays it with a unique and sinister comic vibe. I have long been a sucker for dark comedies, and I can certainly say that Death to Smoochy is the darkest of comedies in many a moon. There’s also an ironic twist here; it’s a dark comedy set against a backdrop you’d least expect to be so twisted, depending on your take, which is that of kids television programming. It’s actually a good question to ask; would families ever suspect that somewhere lurking underneath such innocent programming as Sesame Street or Captain Kangaroo was such a thing as corporate greed? That’s just what DeVito presents in his no-holds-barred satire.

Robin Williams, at his insanely comedic best, plays Rainbow Randolph, who at the beginning of the movie is the headliner of the top children’s television show in the country. He’s a sparkling crowd-pleaser in front of the camera, but his off-camera antics leave a lot to be desired. When busted for accepting a bribe from undercover FBI agents, Randolph is immediately kicked off the air and out of children’s television for good. While the network, KIDNET, is embarrassed by Randolph’s incident, they find themselves in dire need of a replacement, and fast. Of their limited choices, the one that stands out with even the slightest hint of potential is Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), who’s creative concept is the heart-warming personality, Smoochy the Rhino.

Needless to say, Sheldon’s enthusiastic and uplifting personality both on and off the camera help make Smoochy’s Magic Jungle the hottest piece of kids entertainment in the country. Randolph, enduring a near-homeless life, is dead set on revenge against his cheery replacement, especially when he strikes a note of intimacy with one of the show’s producers, Nora (Catherine Keener), who was once Randolph’s squeeze. The spontaneous Smoochy phenomenon also brings with it the dangers of corporate sponsorship, including a meddling crook named Burke, played by DeVito, who supplies Sheldon with a gun as a gift, telling him it’s a handy accessory in this business. And Randolph’s revenge plot is certainly not too pleasant, but outlandishly funny in two instances where he plants a peculiarly shaped cookie for Smoochy to give his kids on the show, and later when he sets Sheldon up to perform at a rally that turns out to be attended by neo-Nazis.

The strength of this movie is propelled by three factors. First off, there’s Robin Williams, who is currently enjoying a nice career revelation in playing seriously demented characters in Insomnia and One Hour Photo. While the character of Rainbow Randolph is insane in his own right, this is in service of Williams’ uncanny knack for his hot wired comic brilliance, and it’s one of his funniest performances since Mrs. Doubtfire. Then there’s Edward Norton, who is one of the great versatile actors working right now. After seeing him in such dark films like Fight Club and American History X, I’d never thought I would ever see him play a character as clean and sincere as Sheldon. If I remember correctly, Norton doesn’t utter a single profane word in the entire film (he comes close at one point, but is quick to resist). To be honest, I’d like to see Norton play another edgier character than this kind, but he still shines in a role that is indeed something of a revelation. Finally, there’s Danny DeVito’s visually inspired directing. DeVito seems to be working in the same vein as Tim Burton, who’s also made a number of hideously dark comedies. He, along with cinematographer Anastas N. Michos, who also supplied the look for Man on the Moon, create a certain tone that matches well with the devilish comedy.

My only quibble with the movie is that its conclusion is too easy and squeaky clean. I don’t want to give anything away, but I truly feel that if the movie had stayed with its sinister tone throughout the ending, we may have had something of a knockout dark comedy. Still, Death to Smoochy is at times a riotous comedy fueled by the crazed comedic stylings of Mr. Williams, a gentle revelation in Mr. Norton, and the eye gazing look supplied by Mr. DeVito.

Video ***1/2

As I’ve kept saying throughout the year, WB has never failed to deliver even a near solid transfer, for which in this case, Death to Smoochy is no exception. The anamorphic transfer boasts some terrific elements of sharpness and overall picture clarity. I mentioned how good the directing and cinematography were, and the video job on this disc certainly enhances that element. The only flaw is a bit instance of softness in a scene or two, but nothing largely distracting at all.

Audio ***

Death to Smoochy is very much a dialogue driven comedy, but the 5.1 mix offered by WB does show some impressive bits in such other areas, especially in music and all sequences set on the Smoochy TV show, which includes numerous music performances, etc. A subtle but nonetheless grand transfer that does display a certain amount of dynamic range.

Features ****

Quite simply one of the best packages to come from WB in a long time, features-wise. They have never been known for providing outlandish menu screens, but the menus here really surprised me. Included is a running commentary by Danny DeVito and cinematographer Anastas N. Michos, a nice little behind the scenes featurette, some additional/deleted scenes, a much hilarious outtakes reel, three trailers for the movie, a hidden Easter egg and two bonus areas titled “Magic Cookie Bag” and “Interactive Ice Show”. Some DVD-Rom features are included as well.

Summary:

In the realm of the dark comedy, Death to Smoochy certainly hits the home run in terms of being true to the genre. Fans of Williams and Norton will definitely enjoy, while also being more than likely entertained through Danny DeVito’s sharp directing.