When Satire Goes Bad 

Death to Smoochy (R)
Warner Bros.

This is one slimy little worm of a movie. Behind its shiny veneer and its claim to want to be a comedy is the premise that everyone -- with the possible exception of Smoochy, a Barney-the-TV-dinosaur knockoff -- is rotten to the core.

Given that the film focuses on the universe of network television, one could almost buy that premise. Imagine a black comedy exposing the true nature of those guys and girls who sit around shiny tables in high-rise office buildings, figuring out how to maximize profits while ripping off a willing public. That's what Death to Smoochy purports to do, but it loses its way in a quagmire of vitriol, venom, showoff direction and overacting.

Danny DeVito has directed some good black comedy in the past. With wit and style The War of the Roses and Matilda dealt bad marriages and rotten parents blows they deserved. But here, where showbiz is the target, DeVito can't seem to maintain a focus. He's so busy stacking the cast with hideous creatures, con men and murderous freaks that the film frequently veers off course, wanders on for far too long and eventually loses all possibility of taking a real jab at its subject.

The story centers on a battle for the top-rated kid-show slot of Kidnet, a children's programming network. Rainbow Randall (Robin Williams) has been caught taking bribes from parents who want their kids to appear on his show and is quickly ousted and defamed.

Enter Smoochy, a fuchsia-stuffed rhino played with endearing earnestness by Edward Norton. Smoochy's alter-ego Sheldon Mopes is a true believer, a guy who thinks he can assure pure entertainment that will be good for kids. But his handlers, network executives played by Jon Stewart and Catherine Keener, think differently. They want him to just smile and nod while Kidnet capitalizes on the marketing possibilities -- Smoochy String Cheese, Smoochy O's, Smoochy ice cream and action figures.

When Mopes/Smoochy discovers he cannot work under their terms, he signs up with an agent named Burke (DeVito), a pugnacious little underground character who promises artistic control and integrity to his client while secretly plotting to fleece him for all he's worth. Meanwhile, washed-up, drunken Randall lurks in the background, plotting Smoochy's demise. Throw in Harvey Fierstein as a front for a children's charitable organization, a punch-drunk boxer who loves Smoochy and a leather-clad Irish mafia and you've got an overly zealous cast of bad guys who spend the next two hours smashing heads into brick walls and staging executions.

While Norton makes the best of his role, Williams acts like a delirious escaped insane asylum inmate on crack. In close-up after close-up, he projectile vomits the f-word, his hatred virtually leaking from his pores. Yes, he wants to do penance for the string of sappy roles he's played over the past few years, but his overheated 180-degree turn from smarmiest to most despicable is painful to watch.

Death to Smoochy gets one thing right -- the insidiousness of merchandising campaigns aimed at children. The Tinseltown box office, and presumably every other one in America where ET is currently showing, is bedecked with the latest products promoting the ethereal little extraterrestrial -- ET Cheez Nips, ET Teddy Grahams, ET Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. DeVito and company had a good idea. Too bad they made such a mess of it.

-- Kathryn Eastburn


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