It is a rare case when a major motion picture dons the gusto and audacity of Death to Smoochy, and gets past movie executives creatively intact. The new film directed by Danny DeVito, which stars Edward Norton and Robin Williams, is a kinetically frantic and occasionally choppy comedy that bounces across the screen like a hyperactive cartoon, taking satirical shots at commercialism, children’s television, and political correctness.
“In terms of taking risks, that’s what life is all about, as an artist, filmmaker, painter or even if you plant gardens,” said DeVito in a telephone interview with the collegiate press. “It’s more exciting to take that risk as long as you don’t hurt anybody.”
Death to Smoochy is an expletive-laden comedy that aspires to dance with the dark side. It follows the rise of all-around nice guy Sheldon Mopes (Norton) and his kids’ show host alter ego Smoochy, a giddy fuscia-colored rhinoceros, in the corruptive wake of Saturday morning’s old king, Randolph Smiley (Williams).
Smiley enlightened the minds of kids as Rainbow Randolph before he was caught accepting bribes from parents to put their children on his mega popular program. As his star and sanity quickly fizzle, Smoochy takes his place prancing around in the sing-a-long limelight. From here the plot basically spirals into an ego-and-liquor- fueled landslide of revenge that involves penis shaped cookies, the Irish mob, a Nazi conspiracy, hit men and heartbreak. Or as Williams’ character describes it, “I’m going on a safari motherfuc****, a saffaaaari!”
DeVito, the director of films like The War of the Roses and Throw Momma from the Train, is upbeat and confident about his latest film, and emphasized his desire for it to stay true to its original chaotic vision.
“I do tend to like films that stretch the envelope a little farther,” he said. “When I saw Smoochy, I thought it was really provocative and fun.
“The way I work is I take the script and I try to add my visuals to it. All of the little elements usually start with me and then the cinematographer and I collaborate on the colors and it becomes part of the pace…a collaboration of all of the artists.”
The way in which the film drenches sets ranging from Smoochy’s gaudy studio land to shadowy alleyways in contrasting dark and bright purples, blues and pinks, shares a similar style with less raunchy borderline comedies of the past like The Mask and Dick Tracy. In fact, Anastas Michos’ surreal cinematography, which helped stylize considerably different films like The Doors and Quiz Show, is the notable highlight in this film.
Death to Smoochy, for all of its oddball zeal, takes a few critical punches for having nearly zero character development and satirizing a topic that was long ago mined by writers on The Simpsons with Krusty the Clown and Sideshow Bob.
Yet, this doesn’t outweigh DeVito’s accomplishment in yielding another film that defies easy categorization and will intentionally trip up audiences. During a sneak preview at the Bill Cosford Cinema last week, a girl sitting in the theater asked her friend if the film was supposed to be funny. The tone of her voice suggested that she probably wasn’t able to comprehend the meaning of sarcasm, much less observe it in the film.
An employee at the office of The Miami Hurricane walked out impressed with some of the film’s arguable religious undertones. Other attendees were satisfied with the significant levels of dark comedy. DeVito deserves kudos for making an intelligent and well-rounded film while keeping the college audience in mind. This is a film definitely welcomed in face of more National Lampoon’s Frat Party 8.
When asked whether he preferred acting or directing, DeVito said that he enjoyed both tremendously, but would have to choose the latter. He explained how frustrating it has been throughout his career to make challenging films become a reality, such as 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That film took years to develop and though DeVito appeared in it only as an actor, the award-winning final product inspired his passion to direct. Now when he directs a film of his own and it finally reaches theatres, he describes the feeling as an incomparable “release.” “Directing gives you the most juice from the fruit of this business,” he said.
Judging from the energy he exalts in Death to Smoochy, Williams might beg to differ. The enthusiasm expressed by Williams in his character’s blatant obsession with the f-word is almost a release in itself from the actor’s recent “minivan” films like Patch Adams and Flubber. Manically crashing into walls and spilling coffee on his character’s beloved genitals, Williams is able to run wild, leaping in and out of sanity like a dog through a hoop. He has described the role as “reverse therapy, someone who’s sliding quickly past the doors of Bettie Ford,” and repeatedly warned the film is “nasty funny.”
“This is def comedy Smoochy! Don’t bring anyone under thirty,” Williams jolted out in a morning phone interview.
With two pitch black roles on the way in the upcoming films One Hour Photo and Insomnia, which co-stars Al Pacino, and marks a return to doing stand-up comedy, this year looks to be one in which Williams will stray faraway from Disney-life and take some chances.
“There’s a need for a cathartic laugh. A desire to find a solution to all this madness going on,” Williams said, referring to the film’s need to push the limit to emanate humor.
While there’s little doubt that the desire and potential existed to make a bona fide classic comedy, in the end Death to Smoochy is a little a too loud. But overall, if you tally in the talented cast and an infinite assault of vulgar one liners the film is definitely more worthy of a movie ticket than a forgettable weekend rental.