Death to Smoochy (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Now, four years after its release, one wonders why people hated this film so much.
Death to Smoochy was a financial disaster, and that isn't so easy to accomplish in the current market. For the most part, today's movies are insulated from devastating losses by a variety of revenue streams like overseas ticket sales, DVD sales, video rentals and cable rights. Some movies are profitable before they ever sell the first theatrical ticket. But there's just not enough insulation to cover a problem like Smoochy's. Made with a lavish $50 million budget, it grossed only about eight million domestically.
It opened poorly. Then it crashed in its second week. And that was the good news. Its most dismal levels of failure had not yet even begun. As soon as theaters could get rid of it, they did. The film was dropped from more than 1600 theaters in week three, upon expiration of the mandatory two-week run, and that is among the twenty largest drops of all time.
Here's the sad tale of the tape:
It wasn't just the popcorn crowd that rejected it. Critical response ranged from tepid to revolted. Roger Ebert held his nose and awarded a half of a star.
Yet the film sports some lavish production values and the cast includes Edward Norton, Robin Williams, Catherine Keener, Danny DeVito and Jon Stewart. Looking back upon it, IMDb voters rate it a respectable 6.2.
So what's the story?
Smoochy is a black comedy about the cynical world of marketing to children. Robin Williams plays Rainbow Randolph, a kiddie show host who's all sweetness and light on camera, but is actually a corrupt and foul-mouthed scumbag. ("Do you have any idea who you're talking to? I'm Rainbow Fucking Randolph.") RFR is running every possible payola racket behind the scenes, profiting from every angle, and treating people like dirt in the process. When the FBI catches him in bribery and extortion schemes, the network is mortified and tells the programming director to come up with a replacement so squeaky clean that he doesn't even give off the tiniest whiff of corruption. They find an idealistic, sweet, unknown guy who sings cheery songs in heroin clinics and refuses to profit from anything that will hurt children in any way. Played by Edward Norton, the dreamer's costumed character is called Smoochy the Rhino, and he earnestly teaches kids to avoid processed foods and to try to understand their new stepdads.
For a while, the completely incorruptible Smoochy is the answer to every dream of the network execs, but then his convictions start to interfere with their ability to profit from children's TV. He finds their toys shoddy and/or unsafe. He thinks it immoral to pitch sugary breakfast cereals and junk foods. He won't allow his character to be used for ... well, pretty much for anything where there's an easy buck to be made. In short, the kid won't play ball. Smoochy also starts to wise up about how much influence he can have over his own show. He hires an agent and negotiates a deal where he becomes the producer of his own show and gets complete creative control. A lot of people profit from children's TV, and they are all starting to get very uncomfortable with their honest but self-righteous star.
Meanwhile, Rainbow Randolph is out on bail, and wants his show back. An obvious victim of mental illness, he views the innocent Smoochy as the engine of his destruction and will do anything to crush him ... which leads to the film's funniest scene, when Randolph tricks Smoochy into performing at a Nazi rally, and takes the liberty of informing the press.
And so it goes, back and forth, with Randolph and others plotting to ruin and even to kill Smoochy. They come ever so close, but the sincere naif always manages to survive somehow or another.
It sounds sort of good, doesn't it? Interesting idea. Talented performers chosen well for their roles.
You know where the problem was in this story? In my opinion, it came in the words above: "Randolph and others." If the story had been nicely confined to Randolph versus Smoochy, with the added spice of their love triangle with Catherine Keener, it might have been for an enjoyable film, but the script introduces scads of other villains and scalawags who get involved in the Smooch Wars. There are mob bosses who want favors. There are union guys who want their cut of this and that. There are corrupt network executives (primarily Jon Stewart). There is the agent (DeVito), who turns out to be a schemer as well. There are other kiddie-show hosts who join in the plot to kill Smoochy. There are brutal deaths (and more in the deleted scenes). The film suffers from drastic overkill, from not knowing how to trust or focus on its strengths, thus inflating a lot of unpromising, unfunny secondary ideas to the size of major comic concepts, and pushing them to the foreground. The result of that comic insecurity is that everyone is trying too hard to be funny all the time, and it shows. Robin Williams is a glittering talent, but we all know he has a tendency to be too broad, and there was nobody around this set to rein him in. Jon Stewart was ... Jesus, how do you describe such a performance? You've heard him kid about his performance on The Daily Show. Truth is, that is not self-deprecating wit or deflective modesty on his part, but simple objectivity. He really was that bad. A sign of this film's comic insecurity is that it had to try to milk every laugh, no matter how cheap or obvious, and one reflection of that was that Stewart prances around the entire film with a dorky haircut. That's it. That was 100% of his comedy. Of course, the haircut may not have been such a bad idea considering he had nothin' else. It may be the only case in which comic performer was less funny than his hair, unless you count the public performances of the late Senator Everett Dirksen, which you probably should not because Dirksen wasn't trying to be funny. I think.
All of the stuff with those minor characters, and I mean all of it, was dark and nasty and unfunny. Not a worthwhile moment in the batch. And that was a lot of screen time, enough to make the entire film unappealing.
Having opined that, let me add that I think the film made some accurate points, and I really enjoyed a lot of moments with Edward Norton and Robin Williams, apart and together. I actually watched the film a second time to see those moments again. Those are the moments which have earned this film a solid IMDb score. Those guys are both good actors, both engaging in separate ways, both energetic, both very musical. If only the film could have just been able to stay in focus on their characters and their chemistry, it might have been a dark, raunchy and hilarious comedy which genuinely had something to say - an evening with Lenny Bruce. Instead it turned out to be a nasty, grotesque, strident, not-funny-enough film with some shrill opinions - an evening with a street corner soapbox lunatic.
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