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Death To Smoochy

Back in the mid- to late '90s, before the indomitable hydra of children's entertainment replaced his giant foamy head with another, Barney the litigious purple dinosaur was regularly pummeled on talk shows, on web sites, in movies, and by the San Diego Chicken at sporting events. Several years and kiddie trends later, director Danny DeVito shows up waving a tire iron called Death To Smoochy, an aggressive black comedy that seeks to satisfy a bloodlust already quelled many times over. Playing off the easy irony of depicting kids' television—a purveyor of wholesomeness and canned joy—as a wasp's nest of backbiting and sinister conspiracies, the film adopts a strident, more-is-more comic tone that's precisely wrong for a satire, especially one this obvious. DeVito's philosophy seems to be that a joke is funnier when the actors, the garish décor, the Orson Welles-esque camera angles, the whirring sound effects, and the deranged circus score all scream in unison. To that end, who better to play his angry clown than Robin Williams, whose aimless melange of silly accents and outrageous mugging had long been mistaken for comedic brilliance? Heralded as Williams' return to darker material after sentimental dreck like Bicentennial Man and Patch Adams, Death To Smoochy merely adds strings of profanity to the actor's usual shtick, allowing him to go far enough over the top to remind the audience that he's only kidding. After a payola scandal topples his popular kids' TV show Rainbow Randolph, Williams plots revenge on his replacement, a folk-singing rhino played by Edward Norton. Recruited for his squeaky-clean image, Norton is genuinely earnest and idealistic, which doesn't mesh well with the designs of cynical network producer Catherine Keener, who wants to exploit his Smoochy character for sugar cereals and shoddy merchandise. Norton's double-dealing agent (DeVito) is also a problem; he wants Norton to join the lucrative ice-show circuit, headed by Harvey Fierstein and his corrupt "Parade Of Hope" organization, "the roughest of all the charities." DeVito and screenwriter Adam Resnick introduce another grating wrinkle with the Irish mob and a never-was boxer (Michael Rispoli), assuring that the grotesque parade of characters will come together for a Grand Guignol climax. A few of the song-and-dance numbers capture the acid-trip creepiness of children's shows like Barney & Friends, which are pitched at a dog-whistle-like frequency that enrages adults while connecting with 5-year-olds. While Norton dignifies his straight man with Jimmy Stewart's naïveté, the satire gets blown up to such cartoony proportions that it's hard to remember what the film was satirizing in the first place. Whatever it is, Death To Smoochy has missed its cultural sell-by date, unless Americans have waited all this time to hear Williams yell, "Whassup!"


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