We gave it a D+
Some jokes become so omnipresent that they’re no longer even jokes; they’re more like cultural tics. It used to be a shared cliché that mimes are monumentally annoying, and the same attitude of flip contempt has, by now, been applied over and over again to that most insufferably popular of kiddie-show stars, Barney the dinosaur. What adult, in his or her right mind, doesn’t despise Barney? Who hasn’t made at least one jolly crack about wanting to do the Purple One bodily harm? Yet in Death to Smoochy, a comedy of backstabbing overkill set in the Barneyesque world of children’s television, director Danny DeVito acts as if he’s staging the most outrageous sick satire in history.
DeVito is so eager to hit you over the head with his thudding misanthropic bombast that he telegraphs, and defuses, his central gag before we’ve even settled into our seats. From its opening moments, ”Death to Smoochy” rushes to show us that ”Rainbow” Randolph Smiley (Robin Williams), the happy-clown host of TV’s most highly rated kids’ program, is — get a load of this! — a big fake, a bilious, hard-drinking scum who takes bribes from eager parents desperate to get their little ones onto the show. Fired in disgrace upon discovery of his scam, Randolph immediately plots his revenge. He focuses all his rage on his replacement, Smoochy, a cuddly singsong rhino played in a big fuzzy horned fuchsia suit by his creator, Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), a genial, health-food-obsessed do-gooder — he’s discovered performing at a Coney Island methadone clinic — who actually believes in trying to inspire kids.
So what does the dark side of Robin Williams look like? Amazingly, not so different from the light side. In ”Death to Smoochy,” he coughs out obscenities like foul exhaust, fixes his face into a rubber scowl, and wraps his quicksilver delivery around such baroque fulminations as ”I’m not gonna sleep until worms are crawling up your foam rubber a–!” The trouble is, Williams makes everything he says sound like an impersonation; even his meant-to-be-shocking tirades come with built-in quotation marks. The script, by Adam Resnick, is so precious in its purple rage that it suggests an overcooked cross between Bruce Vilanch and Clifford Odets. Everyone on screen, from Catherine Keener as the cutthroat, ratings-mad programming executive (now there’s an original concept for satire) to Harvey Fierstein as the gangster who wants to parlay Smoochy’s popularity into a Mob racket, is such a cartoon cad that Williams’ stylized bile doesn’t even stand out.
As Smoochy, Norton has the right beaming-idiot spirit, but he plays Sheldon the dupe in a vague, mild-guy mode that never quite jells. There’s no one to root for in this ponderously ”scathing” thriller-farce, yet DeVito might have gotten away with shoving human bankruptcy in our faces if it were all in the service of a bracing, nasty, original joke. ”Death to Smoochy” tells a moldy-oldie, not-nearly-as-nasty-as-it-thinks-it-is joke. Over and over again.