It might sound weird to use the word “refreshing” to describe Robin Williams playing a homicidal maniac. Usually, I can only stand about 15 minutes of his freneticism — it’s so exhausting. Still, I was okay with Danny DeVito’s Death to Smoochy, where Williams is no less frantic or over the top than usual, but mean. Which, strangely, is a nice change.
Death to Smoochy is full of oddities. Williams provides laughs as crazed kid show host Rainbow Randolph Smiley and Edward Norton’s Sheldon Mopes (a.k.a. Smoochy) is equally entertaining as Rainbow Randolph’s polar opposite. And yet, the film’s premise really isn’t all that funny: Behind the scenes of squeaky-clean children’s tv programming is a corrupt world of sex, bribery, payoffs, even murder. Maybe that’s supposed to be ironic, crooks and thugs producing shows that teach kids about sharing and caring, but it’s also too obvious to be clever.
Rainbow Randolph, star of the children’s television station, Kidnet, is busted for taking payoffs from parents eager to get their kids on stage, then canned and replaced by the unimpeachable goodie-two-shoes, fuchsia rhino, Smoochy. Now that he’s lost everything, Randolph sets out to destroy Sheldon/Smoochy, literally. When framing him for scandals doesn’t work, he arranges to have “the Rhino” killed.
It’s easy enough for him to find willing supporters for the hit, since Sheldon’s naiveti and high moral standards have pissed off everyone, from his producer, the jaded Nora Wells (Catherine Keener) to his agent Burke Bennett (Danny DeVito), not to mention Merv (Harvey Fierstein), the head of the Foundation of Hope, “the roughest of all the charities.” Fortunately for him, Sheldon has made a few powerful friends of his own, namely, Irish mobster Tommy Cotter (Pam Ferris) and her gang, who become Sheldon’s self-appointed protectors.
Sheldon and Randolph become a sort of live action Roadrunner and Coyote, with Randolph’s violent schemes backfiring and landing on him like so many anvils while Sheldon, of course, always comes out unscathed. We can laugh at such violences (broken teeth, beatings, self-immolations) because the opponents are caricatures: Sheldon is generous and kind, prone to spouting mottos like, “You can’t change the world, but you can make a dent.” He is so dedicated to children’s programming that he equates Captain Kangaroo with Jesus. To top it all off, he’s kind of sexy beneath that pink rhino suit. On the other hand, Rainbow Randolph (or Rainbow Fucking Randolph, as he calls himself) is foul-mouthed, selfish, amoral, aggressive, and apparently, gay.
Yes, gay. Or, as Sheldon puts it, Randolph has “serious issues with sexual identity.” Everyone, including us, gets this from the beginning, when a sequined, tap-dancing Randolph prances around his show singing, “Friends Come in All Sizes” to his kiddie audience. Rainbow Randolph is in denial, however, accusing everyone else of thinking that he is, as he puts it, “a pillow biter.” This detail is totally irrelevant to the plot, serving only as a punchline, but not a very funny one. Maybe it’s another attempt at irony, as if someone couldn’t be enraged, murderous, and gay. If so, is it also supposed to be ironic that Sheldon, dancing around in pink plushie gear, isn’t? Either proposal is decidedly uninspired. The whole sexual identity thing is handled clumsily, with Williams spewing out sporadic homophobic references in his usual Tourette’s kind of way.
Despite its cartoonish aspects and the poorly executed “gay” jokes, Death to Smoochy does try to make a few relevant points, like poking fun at Americans’ willingness to embrace anything cloaked in a U.S. flag (even a pink rhino previously accused of being a Nazi) or demonstrating that even the most self-effacing person can be seduced by the promise of power.
And the film finally succeeds at one of its many attempts at irony. It turns out squeaky-clean icon of kindness Sheldon attended court-ordered anger management classes back in the day, after which he reinvented himself as Smoochy. As Smoochy, Sheldon would never harm a fly, but it seems (and this is apparently the ironic part), he has no problem letting his mobster buddies or even his girlfriend Nora, shoot, behead or otherwise dismember his enemies. As long as he’s fuzzy on the details, he has a clear conscience. When he is pushed to the brink of violence (everyone has his limits, after all; even Smoochy), his friends make sure he never crosses the line, preserving him in all his Smoochiness.
Although he remains at least one step removed via his henchmen, Smoochy is just as willing as Rainbow Fucking Randolph to protect himself and his turf with violence. This poses the question: How much “evil” are we willing to accommodate or even endorse to protect our own (invented) icons of goodness? Better yet, how much of what we call “innocence” is really just turning a blind eye and letting someone else do our dirty work? Unfortunately, there’s no need to answer these questions, as the film never really challenges its audience for laughing at so much violence and hate. With its silly characters and very trite happy ending, Death to Smoochy lets itself, and us, off the hook.