I love Death to Smoochy. It’s a movie done with a lot of talent and care for the craft. It’s hilarious. Its themes of the corrupting influence of power, the commodification of entertainment, and the inherent tension between innocence and corruption are still highly relevant today. It features amazing performances, fun costuming and sets, and enough amazing writing that I still discover great lines in it that hadn’t really hit me before.
I can understand why this movie isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s pretty dark and whacky staff, but I have what they call ‘gallows humor’ and am particularly delighted with magical realism. I can’t recall a single bad time I’ve had watching Death to Smoochy, and it’s one of my comfort movies.
Death to Smoochy is a pitch black 2002 comedy directed by Danny DeVito. It tells the story of a children’s television show host named Rainbow Randolph (played by Robin Williams) who is fired for taking corruption and replaced by Sheldon Mopes (played by Edward Norton), whose stage persona is a fuchsia rhino named “Smoochy.” Sheldon was selected among other performers by KidNet for being beyond squeaky-clean: something they badly needed to recover following Radolph’s disgraceful behavior.
Sheldon’s wholesome and positive attitude, talent for songwriting and performance, and ability working with children propel Smoochy the Rhino into a huge success. Smoochy’s success makes Sheldon the target of many seeking to exploit his popularity, and extract as much money from his adoring fans as possible. Sheldon is also targeted by Randolph, who is looking to get revenge on Smoochy at any cost.
That revenge goes to some absolutely bonkers places. Ice shows, the Irish mob, Nazis. . . it’s over the top in the best possible way.
I’m not going to give it all away, go watch it.
Absolutely everyone in this movie turns in an amazing performance. There’s not one here that doesn’t fit the tone of the movie or the character – all of them are real in their world and it’s a delight to watch them all, but here are some I found particularly notable.
It’s on Williams’ shoulders to pull us into a world where children’s hosts are gods. The opening is his: the movie opens on Rainbow Randolph’s theme song. This is followed immediately by him being busted for taking bribes to get kids on his show. Through the film, he mentally unravels over his repeated failed attempts to thwart Smoochy. I think this movie shows off some of his greatest attributes as a performer. He gets to sing, dance, and go absolutely batshit. He’s frantically hilarious during the cookie scene. His dance after he gets Smoochy framed for being a Nazi is a physical manifestation of schadenfreude.
I can’t really imagine anyone else pulling off the frenetic, physical demands of the role.
Fucking wholesome, man. When he sings “the smack can lead to crack oh yes it can”, in that opening scene and later, ‘your stepdad’s not mean, he’s just adjusting,’ you feel it. Norton is all-in, and he plays Sheldon with full on earnestness. Norton’s through the first parts of the movie are to sell you on Sheldon – his earnestness, his kindness, his purity, and his anger issues.
The slow reveal that Sheldon has had to work through anger issues (HALT!) is deftly handled in the script and by Norton. Over time, as the stakes get higher, it gets harder for him to stay in control of that anger. That anger and frustration come spilling out in a memorable scene in his return to the Magic Jungle following a time of ‘fervent anti-Smoochism’
She’s so perfect in this role. I know I’m saying this for everyone, but I have known women like her – hell I’ve been like her in some ways (except less smart, and far less lovely). It’s wonderful to see her establish Nora as she tries not to be pulled in, seeing Smoochy the first time.
There many great moments with Nora -many have to do with how she reacts to Sheldon in the early scenes. Her initial reactions to Sheldon when telling him that yes, KidNet want to hire him – while still trying to understand just what that was going to mean for her day to day (and trying not to believe in him even though she wanted to) is engaging. Her fierce competence, protectiveness, and her quick wit is fun to watch.
She’s exquisite. Hilarious. Threatening. Her delivery of “You boys ever traveled together before?” never fails to make me laugh. There’s not a scene she’s in where I’m not drawn to her – her presence is palpable. She elevates every scene she’s in. Even if she’s just complaining about Spinner and the cowbell, she’s irresistible. It’s another role where if the actor wasn’t perfect, the movie wouldn’t work – and she’s sublime.
“Have you got the hammer?”
“I’m Spinner!” What an exquisitely sweet and hilarious performance. He does great eye work before doing the jiggy ziggy, and his earnestness matches Edward Norton’s. His physical performance as Spinner with the cowbell not hitting the queues is so awkward and comedically perfect (and his joy at getting it exactly right later matches that energy). His reaction to the scene with Smoochy’s howl is a great character moment. Also his “uh-oh” upon meeting his fate is pitch-perfect darkly hilarious.
Absolutely believable as Frank Mopes – it almost makes one forget the haircut because ultimately it’s perfect for a guy like Frank. I know that Jon Stewart said he ‘sucked’ in the movie, but I think that he played Frank perfectly.
Since it’s a movie about creators, there’s a lot of meta work going on. It also helps to make the characters iconic, as children’s show The Meta of making his Smoochy costume, and how brandable and larger than life it makes him (it’s also in stark comparison to his earlier iteration of the Smoochy costume). The juxtaposition of Sheldon, dressed as Smoochy, interacting with – well anyone – in street clothes is perfect for establishing just how out of sorts a person like Sheldon is. The costumes contain delightful details – and Randolph’s obsession with his coat (so that he can wear it in a big scene) is a great reflection of his attachment to his old life and that persona.
Smoochy’s Magic Jungle vs. the Cold Reality: Set and Theme
The use of setting through the movie is brilliant. Each setting serves the scene, telling something about the characters. Nora’s sleek, modern, impersonal office (with a view) says a lot about her. The opening scenes, showing Rainbow Randolph’s set (and its subsequent tear-down) is a strong introduction into the volatile nature of the chidren’s entertainment media. The staging of the KidNet meeting where the board admonishes Frank to get them someone squeaky clean emphasizes the disconnectedness of those in power.
Sheldon: You can’t change the world but you can make a dent.
Officer: “You ok?”
Randolph: “I’m kind of fucked up in general, so it’s hard to say”
Buggy: I never saw Venice!
Randolph: You better grow eyes in the back of your head, you horned piece of shit, because I’m not gonna sleep until worms are crawling up your foam-rubber ass! I’m goin’ on safari motherfucker! SAH-FAR-I!