“Sincerity is an easy disguise in this business,” Nora, a brittle and suspicious television producer (Catherine Keener), laments. She distrusts everyone by default, keeping colleagues in the biz at a cold distance unless she sees a genuine human being under their masks. At the end of Death to Smoochy, we imagine Nora can’t have warmed up to many people; despite the bright colors, cheerful music, happy kids and even happier advertisers, very little good is to be found in anyone in the Death to Smoochy entertainment universe.
Kid’s host star Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) is caught accepting suitcases full of mad cash from parents wanting their little darlings on his show. In a panic to replace him with a new host without even a hint of scandal, the KidsNet television network hires the low-tier, inexperienced Smoochy the Rhino, the creation of super sensitive neo-hippie Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton). Dubbed a “harmless ethical cornball,” Sheldon works at rehab centers, hospitals and nursing homes and generally cares about the people he performs for. He is the one ethical person in the business; therefore, everyone around him finds him intolerable. After the scandal, Randolph loses everything and becomes a media pariah, then finally snaps and decides he must bring death to the pink rhino who replaced him.
This leads to the expected wacky hijinks, often coupled with social commentary. Children worship an enormous bag of cookies that descends from the misty skies on Smoochy’s show, the kids screaming and crying like teenyboppers at an Elvis concert. What at first seems a sarcastic comment on commercialism becomes truly disturbing: the cookies have been replaced by Randolph with large penis-shaped gingerbreads. After Sheldon’s quick thinking prevents Randolph’s sabotage from ruining the show, Randolph redoubles his efforts, this time enlisting the help of Nazis. Though it’s easy to see why some audiences were offended when Smoochy was released, it’s also worth noting that The Producers (1969) long ago firmly established that Nazis are hilarious; also, the children are suspiciously unseen when Williams unleashes his most salacious penis-based comedy.
There is an amazing cast, headed by Williams, Norton and Keener, also including such comedic stalwarts as Harvey Fierstein, Danny DeVito (who also directed), Pam Ferris and Robert Prosky, plus hundreds of extras. There are beautiful sets, enormous in scope, and fantastic costumes by Jane Ruhm, the veteran costumer who has worked on such cult films as Halloween III: The Season of the Witch and Death Race 2000. The montage where the fuzzy pink Smoochy costume is created, overdubbed with Yma Sumac’s “Malambo No. 1,” is delightful and frankly brilliant.
Smoochy is a bitter and cynical film, its morality hidden behind the pandemonium of the storyline. There are competing voices, characters, agendas, colors and sounds, ridiculous costumes and plenty of dick jokes, but also a tight and well-controlled script. The humor of the film is a defense mechanism in the same way it would be for an individual: a method of coping with the overwhelming tragedy of reality.
The comparison of the pink rhino Smoochy to purple dino Barney is clear. Yet underneath that obvious joke, Death to Smoochy is practically Shakespearean in its tragedy. Children’s entertainment is used as an analogue for the entire entertainment biz, not merely the crooked world of kid’s shows. The focus is less on the business itself than on its effect on individuals, like former child star Buggy Ding Dong (Vincent Schiavelli), now a drug-addled, urine-covered hit man. Spinner Dunn (Michael Rispoli) had been a boxer, a man once well paid to punch another man for the entertainment of others, and now is a goofball left with the mind of a young child. Everyone in the biz has been broken by it in some essential way, their dreams discarded as a world of fame, money and groupies overwhelmed them, then discarded them.
Death to Smoochy is a surprisingly literate film. The opening Rainbow Randolph dance sequences are like some perverse early 1930s Fox musical, with Randolph a be-sequinned El Brendel, complete with bowler. The set for Smoochy’s show is straight out of a 1940s MGM musical, as is Randolph’s celebratory song and dance as he Gene Kellys through town, sans fedora and Hollywood rain but just as thrilled to be alive. Sheldon’s relationship with Nora is a bristly, feisty romance à la Howard Hawks, though Sheldon is far more concerned with feelings and Spirulina-doused soy dogs than zippy one-liners. But Nora gets in enough zings for the both of them, her venom fueled by bitter reality.
As the television business gets tough, Sheldon is talked into hiring hard-ass manager Burke Bennett (Danny DeVito). At one point, Bennett gives Sheldon a gun for protection, a very funny scene whose humor is subdued by its truth. This is the moment where reality bites that insufferably sincere rhino in the ass, as more than one real-life celebrity has had run-ins with organized crime. There is a reason entertainers, if wealthy enough, hire large people to surround them and even carry guns for them.
Sheldon never has a eureka moment, though we realize later that hiring Bennett is what put him on the path toward selling out, of changing himself just as everyone else in the business has had to do. It’s a subtle transition, one that surely leaves plenty in the audience dissatisfied with what can easily be seen as a weak final act. The energy has surely left the film by the finale, although that is mostly because any idealism Sheldon had brought to the situation, as goofy as it may have been, had disappeared. By the third act, Sheldon is no more righteous than anyone else. He talks himself into doing a Feed the Children charity ice show that he had opposed after discovering it was run by the mob, headed by the frightening Merv Green (Harvey Fierstein), who always skimmed a hefty cut of the profits. After the Feed the Children mob accidentally kills Spinner instead of Sheldon, he agrees to do the ice show his way: with free and healthy treats for the kids, cheap tickets and no mob intervention.
But the ice show is a self-indulgent piece of egowank for Sheldon, all glorification of the man coupled with hefty promotion of the Smoochy product. He’s not above exploiting the death of his friend Spinner, or of using the American flag draped around himself for positive PR. Sheldon is also very willing to surround himself with the Irish mob and all its violent, strong-arm tactics, led by Spinner’s sister Tommy Cotter (Pam Ferris), a tough broad who really enjoys torture. She becomes the method by which Sheldon gets all his dirty work done. Though he is a man who readily objects to sugary soft drinks and lack of funding for rehab centers, when told the Irish mob has beheaded Merv Green in retaliation, he doesn’t exactly object, instead merely gulping and asking to be kept in the dark on the details.
Tommy does just that, as do the others in Sheldon’s life. They want him to remain the nice guy he is, and toward that effort, they encourage him to stay a nice guy while they do what is needed to destroy his enemies and maintain his success. This protection doesn’t keep Sheldon pure, of course, it just keeps him ignorant, and that ignorance is Death to Smoochy’s bitter happy ending.
Met with critical derision and box office failure on its original release, Death to Smoochy has enjoyed a modicum of reputation rehabilitation over the past decade, though hardly enough to fully qualify as a cult classic. The film has its weaknesses, primarily in its difficulty addressing the more serious moments while indulging in shock comedy and brightly-colored sets. Overwhelming the audience with sensory input undermines the substance of the film, making it far too easy to see the film as a dated one-off joke about Barney the Dinosaur or a wacky clown-versus-clown diversion, rather than the dark comedy skewering the entertainment industry it truly is.