When the host of the hottest children’s television show sees his career crash and burn after a huge scandal, a struggling entertainer gets the break of a lifetime. But along with the TV show and merchandise bearing his name and face, Smoochy the Rhino also has a huge target on his back…in Death to Smoochy.
DARKNESS, NO PARENTS
Directed by Danny DeVito, Death to Smoochy is the 2002 dark comedy that may have been a little too ahead of its time.
In it, Edward Norton costars as Sheldon Mopes, a naive hippie vegetarian who dreams of only helping and entertaining others in a disgustingly sweet, pure-hearted fashion. While he initially starts off working small, strange gigs, such as singing cheerfully for patients of a methadone clinic, Sheldon finds himself catapulted to stardom when some panicky, desperate television executives need to quickly replace Robin Williams’ Rainbow Randolph, a greedy, egotistical man at the center of a recent FBI sting operation. Now homeless and penniless, Randolph looks to get even at the people he blames for his mistakes and the rhino who dared to replace him. And if Sheldon hopes to come out of this alive, he’ll have to make some questionable friends and prove that he’s a lot tougher than his plush, colorful exterior lets on.
For a movie with such a silly premise, there’s a level of cynicism present in Death to Smoochy that simply wasn’t common at the time of its release. A certain degree of snark and blunt commentary that many movie watchers simply weren’t ready for. Its comedy a little too raw. Its characters too mean. It’s hero too often the butt of jokes–too weak, too vulnerable. Norton’s Sheldon is the rube at the state fair who actively refuses to smarten up because he’s too trusting, maybe even a little too dumb.
In short, Sheldon and Death to Smoochy as a film are the antithesis of what American audiences expected and wanted from a comedy at that point in time. Strangely enough, Death to Smoochy‘s style is now the norm. It can be seen in shows like South Park, The Daily Show, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. In movies like those from Adam McKay and Judd Apatow. But in 2002, audiences were still accustomed to leads who were cool, maybe even a little rude in their brash confidence. They wanted a Bill Murray type, a Jim Carrey type. Just as how audiences weren’t ready in 1998 for a laid-back hippie who would rather smoke a joint and bowl a few frames than get revenge on the men who peed on his rug, they weren’t ready for a wholesome, lovable loser who sings cute songs for children and values integrity.
And as a result, Death to Smoochy remains a movie that is not only overlooked, but largely unknown.
The movie is stuffed with great comedic performances from a cast that not only includes DeVito himself, Williams, and Norton, but also Catherine Keener, Jon Stewart, Harvey Fierstein, and Danny Woodburn. Williams absolutely steals the show as the crazed Rainbow Randolph with the way he seamlessly transitions from this raging, vengeance-driven maniac to a wholly broken, emotional wreck in the blink of an eye. Norton provides depth and nuance and pathos to a character that is otherwise cartoonishly naive.
And all the while, it tells a compelling, if overtly theatrical story of a good man trying to stay true to himself in a world where seemingly everyone else is quick to be their worst possible self for the sake of a penthouse and a quick buck. Because while the characters and performances and conflicts are all turned up to 11, it’s done so with purpose. It highlights the absurd nature of two opposing sides in an argument. On one side, you have characters like William’s Rainbow Randolph and Keener’s Nora Wells, who insist that the only way to make a living in the entertainment industry is trade away your soul for every dollar you can squeeze from anyone and everyone. And on the other side, you have Sheldon Mopes, a man who believes that all it really takes is a stubborn amount of positivity and moxie. The truth is somewhere in the middle. And the movie is about finding it.
Now, perhaps the movie is a little too cynical. Maybe even a little too dark, a little too mean. But Death to Smoochy is also refreshingly honest. It’s a flawed movie about flawed characters struggling to live in a flawed world where everyone lies to themselves. It openly acknowledges some harsh truths that movies–especially those from Hollywood–frequently and purposely ignore in the hope of maintaining this grand illusion that there are clear rights and wrongs, where moral ambiguity either shouldn’t exist or is some bastion of secretly awful people.
Death to Smoochy certainly has its flaws. Some of the jokes are a little flat, a little too sitcom. Some of them honestly come across as a little mean-spirited. The performances are big and bold, which stands in stark contrast to the cynical, grim nature of everything else. It has a lot to say, but it’s a bit too forward and proudly awkward in its approach.
But for as rough and raw as it might be, Death to Smoochy still manages to make it feel effortless. It hits far more notes than it even comes close to missing. It tells a solid story with solid performances. And despite its age, the movie feels not only a little timeless, but oddly appropriate given the current state of entertainment (and just about every other corner of our culture).
If you’re looking for a flashy, punk rock performance that doesn’t slow down or care about anything but being true to itself, you would do right by electing to CHILL with Death to Smoochy.