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(2002) (Edward Norton, Robin Williams) (R)

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Black comedy: After losing his fame and fortune for being caught accepting bribes, a former kids show host plots to get his revenge on the clean cut man and costumed character chosen as his replacement.
"Rainbow Randolph" Smiley (ROBIN WILLIAMS) once had it all - fame, fortune and a highly successful and lucrative children's TV show that he hosted. Yet, when he's busted for accepting bribes to put children on the program, both he and the show are quickly canned. It's then up to Kidnet network president Frank Stokes (JON STEWART) and vice-president of development Nora Wells (CATHERINE KEENER) to find a squeaky clean replacement as soon as possible. They do so in Sheldon Mopes (EDWARD NORTON), a bottom-rung performer who plays hospitals and drug rehab clinics as Smoochy, a colorfully costumed rhino who entertains the patients with his folksy songs.

The new show is soon a big hit, with regulars such as Angelo (DANNY WOODBURN) moving over from Randolph's cancelled program. As idealistic as they come, Sheldon believes he can do good with his show, but it's not long before he gets an unsavory, behind the scenes look at this world.

Nora and Frank want to market the character and show as widely as possible, which thus allows Burke Bennett (DANNY DEVITO) to sweep in and persuade Sheldon to allow him to represent him in such matters. Little does he know that the agent is in cahoots with Merv Green (HARVEY FIERSTEIN) of the Parade of Hope charity and that both plan to skim some money off the top of all things Smoochy related.

Then there's Mafioso Tommy Kotter (PAM FERRIS) who "persuades" Sheldon to put her dimwitted cousin and ex-boxer, Spinner Dunn (MICHAEL RISPOLI), on the show. Sheldon's biggest problem, of which he's initially unaware, however, is that Randolph, who's now destitute, has decided to do anything and everything in his power to ruin Sheldon and Smoochy and thus hopefully get his old show back. All of that, and a former host turned heroin addict and assassin, Buggy (VINCENT SCHIAVELLI), make for an interesting and dangerous time in Sheldon's turn on the show.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Perhaps my parents, their neighbors or a future psychiatrist of mine will be able to uncover the "deep, dark secret" behind this, but I never really cared for costumed characters as a kid, which also holds true even today as an adult. It's not that I find them frightening - although some of them are scary in how sugary cute they and their costumes are - it's just that they've never seemed real or interesting to me, what with the frozen blank stares and soulless eyes.

Then there's the thought that the person behind or beneath the plastic, rubber and fabric is probably not anything remotely like their fake, outward appearance. Do we really want to know what the real Mickey is like, or what's really inside Barney, that insidious TV creation that young kids might enjoy, but is capable of bringing a grown man to his knees, begging for mercy that he stop singing, "You love me. I love you" repeatedly ad nauseam?

Thus, I could immediately empathize with the thought of Randolph Smiley having similar feelings toward the costumed title character in "Death to Smoochy." Of course, I should mention that Smiley was a former costumed character who - like the real life Pee-wee Herman - fell hard from the grace of children's TV programming.

Unlike Paul Reubens, however, Smiley wants the new cultural icon who's replaced him to be permanently cancelled (as in sent to costumed character Heaven, or Hell, depending on how you look at such things). That's the jumping off premise of director Danny DeVito's latest comedy that's decidedly not a kids film (a point the title should already suggest) but is similar in black comedy vein to the filmmaker's previous works such as "The War of the Roses" and "Throw Momma From the Train."

As written by screenwriter Adam Resnick ("Lucky Numbers," "Cabin Boy") who was also a writer on HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show," the film's first and underlying attempt at humor is in suggesting that children's TV programming, or at least the behind the scenes workings, is just as full of politics, shallowness, corruption and backstabbing as any other business. Included in that is that the hosts aren't always the nice, squeaky-clean people they might appear to be.

Of course, that playing against type sort of humor isn't exactly novel in such regards. TV shows like "Saturday Night Live" with Eddie Murphy doing a ghetto spoof of "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" and "The Simpsons" having Crusty the Clown being a boozing, chain-smoking loser off the air have already beaten this one to the punch. Then there's Baby Herman from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

Nevertheless, such material offers some decent laughs and moments here, although most are more amusing than downright funny or hilarious. It's the film's various lines of dialogue, other moments stemming from the main plot and some of the performances, however, that offer some of the bigger laughs, and some of them are uproariously hilarious.

Most of the attention and expectations will be placed on Robin Williams ("Bicentennial Man," "Patch Adams") since, for the first time in quite a long while, he's playing the dark side of things. His comedic attempts, much like the film in general, are fast, furious and plentiful, with more of them thankfully hitting than missing. Those with low tolerance levels or little patience for the comedian's manic delivery and apparently improvised humor, however, may tire of the wild performance, regardless of its appropriateness for the role.

Far more subdued but equally or even more entertaining is Edward Norton ("The Score," "Keeping the Faith") as the idealistic new host. Seemingly channeling both Jimmy Stewart (in the performer's now stereotypical idealism) and oddly Matthew McConaughey ("The Wedding Planner") in a calm drawl, Norton again proves that he's as adept at playing comedy as he is drama.

Catherine Keener ("Being John Malkovich," "Simpatico") also gives an entertaining take on her executive character and her relationship with the title character. While it's not far from what she played in "BJM" and the character unfortunately but predictably softens up as the story progresses, her early reactions and dialogue are often quite funny.

Beyond Michael Rispoli ("Two Family House," "Summer of Sam") as the dimwitted but enthusiastic ex-boxer put on the show and Vincent Schiavelli ("3 Strikes," "Ghost") as a former host turned junkie and assassin, the supporting performances are a mixed bag. Danny DeVito ("Heist," "What's the Worst That Could Happen") plays the same sort of charming but scheming and devious character he's done before, while Jon Stewart ("Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," "Big Daddy") doesn't do much with his character beyond supporting a purposefully bad haircut.

Once we see who he is and what he's doing, Harvey Fierstein ("Independence Day," "Mrs. Doubtfire") is weak as the corrupt charity official, and Pam Ferris ("Matilda," the TV movie "Sweet Revenge") isn't quite as much fun as she initially appears she'll be as the head of an Irish mob.

While the material might become a bit repetitious and redundant once everything is set up, and some of the jokes might not be that funny (such as yet another surprise Nazi rally), enough of the bits work and some are so funny (including all of the songs that Norton's costumed character sings) that the overall effort comes off as contagiously enjoyable and often hilariously entertaining. Accordingly, "Death to Smoochy" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 26, 2002 / Posted March 29, 2002

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