Published April 1, 2002
Not having spent much time in methadone clinics, I can’t say for sure whether or not it is at all common for them to provide entertainment for the heroin addicts they treat. But if they did, would the entertainer be likely to be a children’s TV “personality” whose heroes are Captain Kangaroo and Jesus and who sings to his own guitar accompaniment and the tune of “She’ll be comin’ round the mountain”, “We’re gonna get you off that smack, oh yes we are”? Possibly such a thing has happened, but if so, it does not change the fact that, on the face of it, the idea is absurd — really too absurd to be funny. That the hero of Death to Smoochy starts out in this way is testimony to the fact that the film’s director, Danny De Vito, and writer, Adam Resnick, have a penchant for mixing up the dark, sordid and violent side of life with the innocent, anodyne and sentimental for comic effect, but without the slightest concern for verisimilitude.
There is in any case only so much of this kind of comedy one can take, and it is not so much as will fill out the length of a feature film. Death to Smoochy has some great comic inventions in it, but few if any of them depend on this particular juxtaposition of the child-like with the “adult.” Making the producers of kiddies TV say the F-word and its no doubt humorous derivatives every time they open their mouths, or having them mixed up in crooked charities (with the implication that all charities are crooked) run by the mob, or showing their lives dominated by lust, hatred and revenge may be a cynic’s delight, but for those of us who have hitherto resisted the charms of the doglike view of the world it becomes very quickly tedious.
When, for example, Smoochy, a.k.a. Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton) reaches into his cookie pouch on air and pulls out a bit of gingerbread, put there by his bitter rival, Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) in the shape of a penis, any potential comic impact (not much, I think) is dissipated anyway by showing the adorable little moppets of Smoochy’s on-stage fan club sniggering at it in a knowing way. The cynic thus undermines his own attempts at humor. And if Mel Brooks can get humor out of Nazis, their presence here (as part of yet another attempt by Rainbow Randolph to discredit his successor) seems merely bizarre and tasteless. Why should they cooperate with Randolph, or cheer for Smoochy anyway. Is there a hitherto unsuspected connection between National Socialism and children’s TV?
Nor does the presence of the mob make any more sense. In fact, there are two mobs — a good (Irish) mob led by Pam Ferris and a bad mob (of indeterminate ethnicity) led by Harvey Fierstein, both of which happily operate outside the law and murder those who get in their way — but neither produces anything significant in the way of comedy. Or is their habit of murder and mayhem supposed to be funny. In any event, what is the point of all the skullduggery over a charity ice show featuring Smoochy — a rhinocerous modeled on Barney the Dinosaur — on skates, the proceeds of which Fierstein’s mob wants to skim? It is a plot too much when the film already has Rainbow Randolph’s revenge to deal with. Together the two plots so darken the film that it is easy to miss the genuinely funny bits of the movie, most of which have to do with Smoochy’s game attempts at political correctness and psychobabble for the children — for example, a song called “My step-dad isn’t mean, he’s just adjusting”?
And then there’s Robin Williams. After some years during which he has seemed to vie with Kevin Costner in playing wounded, sensitive types and to specialize in the Patch Adams sort of cheap uplift as a kind of atonement for his years of being wickedly funny, he has returned to something like his true form here. But — perhaps it is incident to his being Robin Williams — he stands out from the rest of the movie like a sore thumb. Though funny in himself as the embittered and vengeful kiddie-show host, ousted by a bribery scandal, whom Smoochy replaced, he just doesn’t fit with anything else in the picture, and his redemption at the end is just another of its absurdities.
If this movie had a place to go, it was with the character of Sheldon Mopes himself. When, in another of its gratuitous absurdities, he is presented with a revolver, he refuses it explaining that “When my brothers and I played cowboys and Indians,” he explains, “I was always the Chinese railway worker.” We can believe it. This is in character for him. His later assault on his crooked agent, Burke Bennett (Mr DeVito) is not. But neither side of his character is sufficiently explored. Jon Stewart’s Marion Frank Stokes is an unnecessary as well as an unconvincing villain and Smoochy’s love interest, Nora Wells (Catherine Keener) is so disagreeable that we can hardly care about her ostensible reformation, which seems in any case to come about as the result of characteristic lust, since she has spent her life as “a kind of kiddy host groupie.”
At one point she explains her initial hostility to Smoochy by saying that “I may have become a bit hardened over the years.” Now that she softens with the realization that Mopes really is the goody-goody he seems (why this should be attractive to her is another matter) she adds: “Listen, sincerity is an easy disguise in this business.” It’s a good idea, but neither she nor the movie ever manage to persuade us that they have any real regard for sincerity. They don’t even believe in its existence, except in the form of Nora’s own foul-mouthed cynicism. Mopes’s tofu-eating, juice drinking high-mindedness is not sincerity anyway (though it presumably is sincere). Its sentimentalism and preachy hygienic and dietary puritanism are simply the nearest thing Hollywood can imagine to goodness. Something that begins with such poverty of moral imagination inevitably issues in mere cynicism.