Derek Domike, formerly of Advanced Dorks and Deconstruction and Son of Double Feature, revisits Danny DeVito’s 2002’s cult comedy Death to Smoochy to see if it has withstood the test of time, and if friends really do come in all sizes.
Like many a self-identified disaffected cynical intellectuals, I like a little jet-black irony with my morning coffee, and, from an alarmingly early point in my childhood, I had developed a decidedly morbid and dark sense of humor that made the kind of deep rueful chuckles of dark comedies like Harold and Maude, The Ruling Class, or Dr. Strangelove. That’s not to say 2002’s Death to Smoochy deserves a seat in such rarefied company, but it justifies why I not only saw this movie, in the theater, with my Dad, and about four other people, the weekend it came out.
Starring Robin Williams and Edward Norton, with supporting performances from Catherine Keener, Danny DeVito (who does directing duty as well), and an overly-maligned Jon Stewart, Smoochy focuses on disgraced children’s performer Rainbow Randolph (Williams), who blames his fall from grace and hardships on children’s performer Sheldon Mopes (Norton), alias Smoochy the Rhino, his plush-suited replacement in the hearts of children everywhere. Along the way, they run afoul of the Irish mob, Neo-Nazis, the seedy underbelly of children’s charities, and phallic-shaped cookies.
This wouldn’t be DeVito’s first foray into directing, or his first cynical comedy poking aggressively at human foibles: Throw Momma from the Train, The War of the Roses, even Matilda all hit hard and have a little more vitriol behind them than your average Hollywood comedies. Williams also has a reputation for occasionally taking work that has a similar malicious edge when he isn’t peddling schmaltz. Screenwriter Adam Resnick wrote the tonally similar Lucky Numbers and Cabin Boy, the latter of which also acquired a cult following despite a lukewarm critical reception. Catherine Keener gained notoriety for the surreal and cynical Being John Malkovich. Overall, there’s a lot of experienced misanthropy represented here, but does it play to making a stronger film? Perhaps not.
First, some obvious strengths of the film: some of the songs are hilarious, with the veneer of kiddie show fare and a dark undercurrent (“My Step-Dad’s Not Mean, He’s Just Adjusting,” or the opening number “Friends Come In All Sizes,” with lines like “some like to toss, while other’s to catch/one might say grass while the other says snatch” sung with anarchic glee and a wink from the camera from Williams). Which brings us to in my opinion the Most Valuable Player of this film: Robin Williams’ (admittedly Razzie Award-winning) performance as Rainbow Randolph is basically a hurricane of scenery-chewing and mania of Williams at simultaneously his darkest and funniest, especially in scenes where his psyche is left unchecked to bounce around like some sort of errant multicolored pachinko ball. The composition and filmmaking, while not groundbreaking, are intriguing and do a good job at making light of the strange multicolored world and their rotted away backings, as well as the sterile offices of KidTech and the veritable cornucopia of sugar and plastic they try to market to the kids.
Jon Stewart has made a point of skewering his involvement in this film. I’d respectfully disagree, while perhaps he isn’t exactly Olivier, he brings decent pathos to his overwhelmed executive and performs primarily in a straight-man and expository function, and serviceably at that. While Norton usually is one of the best actors of his generation, his Sheldon Mopes is all earnestness and inoffensiveness to the point of barely being an active protagonist (which is why so much focus ends up on Randolph’s attempts to destroy the indestructible moral pillar), although he does get to flex his acting muscles near the end. Most of the other principles and supporting cast are serviceable, but Keener is probably the one with the least to do, and the one who suffers the most because of it. Her character’s arc is so sudden with too little depth plumbed too late for most audiences to care much about her, and the relationship between her and Mopes feels forced and obligatory.
Which brings us to the problems this film has, which, unfortunately, is in the story: it’s uneven and a little unpolished in places, and these weaknesses become more and more apparent in the depths of the third act, which brings about a set of poorly elevated and resolved stakes. There are also tonal issues, and while some sequences do manage to use crude comic material in a satirical way (the Spinner character manages to not feel as horribly forced as it could have been, and a subplot involving Randolph trying to insinuate Smoochy as a Neo-Nazi, for example), while others, more shocking for their own sake, feel forced (like the aforementioned phallic cookie sequence).
How has my opinion changed in the past decade? Overall, I would say that it’s cooled significantly. While I still enjoyed it, and saw the bright spots I remembered from my adolescence, the clunkier segments fell even flatter than I remember them. I can definitely see just why this was such a commercial failure: it’s simply too niche for mainstream consumption and worth the purported investment of fifty million dollars. That isn’t to say I found myself disliking the movie, just that I liked it less than I remembered. There’s still a really strong dark comedy lurking inside just straining to get out, saddled with errant bits of crassness and a weak third act. There’s also a few great quotable lines, many of them from out-of-left-field secondary characters. (Two standouts for me are “Always got the hammer, Tommy,” and “I never saw Paris.”)
Overall, perhaps the concept works better as a lower budget short than it does a full-length fifty million dollar feature. That doesn’t mean this movie still isn’t criminally underrated and misunderstood to the point of derision. It isn’t for everybody, but if you like your comedies dark and your humor morbid and cynical, it’s worth watching. Otherwise, there’s very little worth your time.