Barney, Blue’s Clues, Sesame Street: one has to wonder sometimes how all these adults can be hosts on children’s shows like these and still keep it together. Well, according to Death to Smoochy, you can’t! Be it bribery, drugs, sex, or just tons and tons of money, it seems as though most of these people are just nuts and do anything to keep them as sane as possible. That’s where we start our story: Randolph Smiley (played by the wonderful Robin Williams in a not so wonderful role) is the star of the enormously popular Rainbow Randolph Show and is caught by the FBI very early on in the film taking monetary bribes from parents to get their children front and center on his show. Death to Smoochy starts out with this big darkly comedic bang and never lets up.
Reeling from the loss of their big children’s show money maker, as well as putting a giant black mark on their network, Kidnet decides that the only way they can replace Rainbow is with someone squeaky clean, fronted by someone like Sheldon Mopes, aka Smoochy the Rhino played by Edward Norton (American History X, Fight Club, Birdman) in arguably one of his best performances. Marion Frank Stokes, played by the sadly underutilized Jon Stewart (The Daily Show, The Faculty), and Nora Wells, played by Catherine Keener (8MM, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Hamlet 2), pick through a list of washed up and terrible children’s show hosts until they land on the most pure and innocent Sheldon. When Nora approaches him about working on the new big show at Kidnet, we are thrust into this character of an overly nice, vegan sweetheart who starts out as such a caricature that it hurts. Throughout the rest of the film, Sheldon is thrust into stardom and presented with many different options that test his character, while displaying great satire at the entire adults in the children’s entertainment business, as well as how money and fame can corrupt even the purest of souls, along with guns, dildos and penis cookies, Nazism, and the Irish Mob.
The best thing about this movie is how it handles Sheldon’s character and presents him to the audience. He starts out as a caricature that we all hate and don’t mind the fact that Kidnet is just using him, without a second though towards his high morals. Slowly though, we (as well as Nora) are brought over to Sheldon’s side as we realize just how important being nice, caring and kind in a world full of hate and anger is. Sheldon is pushed and pulled in every direction, but no matter what is given to him, taken from him, or promised him, he never really loses his sense of self and importance in this world, and that’s something to admire. Nora’s character is great as well; she starts out just another one of these rich jerks but slowly comes over to understand and care for Sheldon, just a little slower than the viewer does.
Death to Smoochy also has a great cast of supporting characters, which is where we come to Rainbow Randolph. I have a hard time considering Randolph a main character as he’s is not the main focus, nor does he have as much screen time as I would have liked. Rainbow Randolph is played by Robin Williams here in a role that is a lot darker and a lot more funny than I had expected. People knowing Williams from family films such as Aladdin or Mrs. Doubtfire may not like him as much here, but people who know and love his standup comedy will absolutely adore him as that’s the kind of humor portrayed throughout the film. Rainbow is a wonderfully complex character who is seemingly completely sane until he loses it all, especially his show, and goes completely off his rocker. This is another character who we start out thinking is just dumb and annoying, until we realize throughout the movie just how much The Rainbow Randolph Show meant to him and see that he’s just an incredibly damaged character with a good soul covered in the corporate greed that is show business.
The rest of the cast is wonderful as well, from Danny DeVito (Twins, Matilda, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as the shady agent of Sheldon, Harvey Fierstein (Mrs. Doubtfire, Independence Day) as an even shadier charity leader, to Pam Ferris (the horrific Trunchbull from Matilda, much nicer in Smoochy) as Irish mob boss Tommy Cotter and Michael Rispoli (Invincible, Kick-Ass, Pain & Gain) as Spinner Dunn, her son, massive Smoochy fan, and former boxer who took one too many blows to the head. I will say I do wish that we got more of Marion Stokes in this film. The one scene with Williams trying to get his job back from Stewart is an absolute joy to watch. The script is also fantastic, written by Adam Resnick (Cabin Boy, Lucky Numbers), as it delves into morality and life throughout all of the characters. It turns the character tropes on their heads, with all the people working for Kidnet and charities being corrupt and the Irish mob and ex boxers being absolute sweethearts who would do anything to help Sheldon and Smoochy. It delves greatly into the idea that power and fame can change even the nicest of independent artists into big money grubbing jerks while also showering the film in the most wonderful and darkest of comedy. Danny DeVito (who also directed The War of the Roses and Matilda) did a decent job here, but none of it visually really stands out.
Death to Smoochy is a movie about corporate greed, a movie about power and what happens when you lose it, a movie about the darkness in humanity, but it is also a movie about how good can overcome evil. Every single person does a wonderful job in this film, but Robin Williams and Edward Norton are the best and give some of the best performances of their careers. I do wish we could have seen Williams in more darkly comedic roles like this that seem to match his standup humor so well. This movie is an absolute joy to watch, especially in a world full of darkness, and to see this darkness on display full force around a character such as Sheldon Mopes who no matter what always comes back to his morals and reminds us all that we too can be a good force in this world.