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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 29, 2002

'Death to Smoochy' dead on arrival

By Jack Garner
Gannett News Service

 •  DEATH TO SMOOCHY (Rated R, with strong profanity, graphic violence, and sexual references) One Star (Poor)

A heavy-handed clunker of a satire on kiddie TV shows, with Edward Norton and Robin Williams as battling actors who have each created a character for children. Director Danny DeVito pushes the actors way over the top — and misses his Barney-like target, even though he's using the cinematic equivalent of napalm. Warner Bros., 105 mins.

A clever, sharp-edged satire awaits within the world of children's television. Danny DeVito's "Death to Smoochy" isn't it.

Despite the efforts of a cast that must have seemed perfect on paper, "Death to Smoochy" is a clumsy, heavy-handed clunker, a major disappointment from the director of such quality black comedies as "The War of the Roses" and "Throw Momma from the Train."

Instead of a witty expose on the banality and hypocrisy of too much kiddie-TV, we get an ugly, mean-spirited lashing out by an adult who's apparently been forced by his kids to watch too many Barney videos.

And the big, annoying dinosaur seems way too easy a target to be flattened by this noisy, nasty tank of a movie.

Here the creature is an overstuffed, fuchsia rhino, played by a sweet-natured idealist named Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton). Despite limited talent, Mopes has just been given a prime slot on network TV. In truth, the network executives had little choice — all the other veteran kiddie performers have slimy records as drug addicts, sex offenders or other degenerates.

They include Randolph Smiley (Robin Williams), who's just been fired for taking bribes from parents eager to have their kids sit on his lap on the TV show.

Flat broke and reviled, Smiley blames his successor — Smoochy — for his misfortune, and vows to kill him.

If Norton and Williams had been able to play out that narrative with fewer distractions, some humor might have been generated.

But DeVito and writer Adam Resnick clutter the tale with all sorts of eccentric, unfunny and annoying characters — a dim-witted boxer, Irish gangsters, corrupt charity fund-raisers, midget actors and more.

But nearly all attempts to juggle them in screwball situations prove tiresome, unimaginative and flat.

Norton manages to project his character's sweet innocence and naivete, but that doesn't mean it's funny.

As Smiley, Williams is hammy and overaggressive in what is basically a supporting role. His character also makes a 180-degree turn-around near the end that makes no sense at all.

DeVito makes little more than a cameo appearance, as a crooked agent who tries to influence squeaky-clean Mopes to play ball with the network bosses.

Catherine Keener is more restrained — and appealing — as the network executive who deals directly with Mopes — and finds herself romantically drawn to the sweet young man.

Hers is the only character in the film that's not an overly exaggerated cardboard cutout. In a better, more pointed satire, with at least a hint of reality, the other characters would be more like her.

Instead, director DeVito pushes the actors way over the top — and misses his Barney-like target, even though he's using the cinematic equivalent of napalm.

Rated R, with strong profanity, graphic violence, and sexual references. (It's ABOUT kiddie TV, but it's NOT for kids.)