Any movie with a main character who spends several moments expounding on the parallels between Captain Kangaroo and Jesus Christ clearly isn’t afraid to take risks. And Danny DeVito’s Death to Smoochy — the blackest, nastiest, most over the top black comedy to come along in ages — is full of such risks. It’s most certainly not destined to be everyone’s cup o’ hemlock, but, for me, it’s the most successful film to emerge in 2002, and the most vulgarly funny and truly subversive comedy since Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Viewers need to be warned up front that if they treasure the warm, cuddly Robin Williams of such things as Patch Adams and Mrs. Doubtfire, Death to Smoochy should probably be avoided at all costs. However, for anyone wondering whatever became of the manic, edgy Williams of years gone by, the movie proves that he was there all the time — drowning in a sea of molasses. With Death to Smoochy Williams reclaims his status as a comedian worth taking seriously — and as an actor once again. He blusters, he simmers, he sizzles with the unapologetic ego of his disgraced kiddie show host Rainbow Randolph Smiley (a name he cannot say without including a variant of the “f” word between Rainbow and Randolph). For that matter, it would be virtually impossible to improve on any of the cast in this deliciously nasty bitches’ brew. Edward Norton has a field day with the almost impossible role of Smoochy (nee Sheldon Mopes), the gaggingly sweet, impossibly high-minded and too-good-to-be-true kiddie-show star. Catherine Keener is a preposterous delight as a kiddie-show producer and groupie with a list of paramours that seems to include everyone but Captain Kangaroo. Jon Stewart, DeVito and Harvey Fierstein make marvelously loathsome villains, which is actually a neat trick in a movie where even the good guys are pretty darn dubious. It all stems from Adam Resnick’s (writer-director of the much-misunderstood flop, Cabin Boy) viciously funny screenplay that spins out of a bizarre fable: namely, what happens when Rainbow Randolph gets popped for taking money for favors and is replaced by the most banal, vapid and “squeaky clean” character imaginable. Smoochy is a Barney-esque purple rhinoceros, created by Sheldon Mopes after being required to take an anger-management course in college. Rescued from the oblivion of plying his trade at such glorious venues as the Coney Island Methadone Clinic (“Oh, we’ll get you off that smack, oh, yes, we will,” he sings to the tune of “Comin’ Round the Mountain”) by desperate producers in search of a host with no character flaws, Mopes is completely unprepared for the corruption and commercialization of children’s television. And he certainly isn’t prepared for how dangerous the industry can actually be — at least as put forth in the film. Not only has Randolph vowed to get his revenge on Smoochy (convinced that he’s evil incarnate), but the “charitable” foundation (headed up by a very sinister Harvey Fierstein) that backs the TV show is determined not to let the idealistic Mopes kill the cash cow of commercialism — at any cost. Photographed in DeVito’s trademark dark lighting with rich, heavily saturated colors, Death to Smoochy almost qualifies as a comedy film noir — at least up till its very last section, which is something of a cop-out, though not an inexcusable or unworkable one. And it’s in keeping with DeVito’s earlier work. Even DeVito’s darkest film, The War of the Roses, backs off in more extreme moments, while the black comedy of Throw Momma from the Train was never more than the surface of an ultimately sweet-tempered movie. Death to Smoochy falls somewhere between the two, but it blessedly never loses its edge. Be warned: Death to Smoochy is not for the easily offended, but if you’re up to it, it’s well worth checking out.
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