The Daily Stream: Death To Smoochy Is A Comedy Masterpiece That Deserves Reappraisal

The Movie: "Death to Smoochy"

Where you can stream it: Free with ads on YouTube

The pitch: Kids' show host Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) finds himself going from the high life to the gutters after he's caught taking bribes from parents to get their kids on his show. It turns out that children's television is rife with criminal activity, and the studio, Kidnet, needs to replace Randolph with someone truly squeaky clean. Enter Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), a vegetarian bleeding heart who dresses up as Smoochy the Rhino and performs at bar mitzvahs and the Coney Island Methadone Clinic. 

Producer Nora Wells (Catherine Keener) hires Smoochy and helps him become Kidnet's biggest star, but there are a few problems: she both loathes and lusts after Sheldon, his idealism ends up taking a big bite out of Kidnet's bottom line, and Randolph's out for revenge. In fact, after a few failed attempts at humiliating Sheldon, Randolph decides the only way to deal with things is to make the purple rhino go extinct. 

Danny DeVito directed this sharp, scathing satire of children's television written by "Late Night with David Letterman" scribe Adam Resnick. It's a black comedy ahead of its time, delivering the kind of shocking but somehow socially conscious comedy that DeVito would later dive into on the FX series "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." When the film was released in 2002, many critics and audiences were left scratching their heads, but in 2022, it's a bonafide masterpiece that deserves another look. 

Why it's essential viewing

As /Film's own Scott Thomas noted, "Death to Smoochy" goes hard. The first big comedic set-up involves Randolph switching out a bag of cookies that Smoochy is going to give to the children on-air with a bag of penis-shaped treats instead. Cinematographer Anastas N. Michos shoots the sequence unlike any other comedy I've seen, using mirrors, props on the "Smoochy's Magic Jungle" set, and more to make each frame completely unique and full of interesting visuals. It has the kinetic energy of something like "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World," but with a decidedly more sinister undertone. By the time Smoochy pulls out one of the boner biscuits and stares at the screen with shock and horror, the build-up has primed the audience for this moment. The children begin to giggle. Everyone goes silent, and the camera zooms in on Norton's face. He's so innocent, so pure and sweet, and he only stumbles for a moment before declaring the shape is actually a rocket ship and saving the moment. 

The film hinges on Norton's performance, because he has to be both believable and likable as the naïve and noble Sheldon. DeVito appears as Sheldon's manager, Burke, and he's the sleaziest bulldog of a manager you can imagine, trying to push Sheldon toward his own shady lifestyle. He even buys Sheldon a handgun as a present for hiring him as a manager, which, understandably, terrifies the sweet-hearted man. "Death to Smoochy" is like a gourmet treat made of bitter chocolate, and Sheldon is the gooey caramel center that holds it together and makes the darkness more enjoyable.

A stylish satire with a ton of heart

A lot of the humor in "Death to Smoochy" comes from the contrast between goody two-shoes Mopes and the sordid world of children's television. He's ignorant to ignorance, misunderstanding a comment Randolph makes about homosexuality as having a sleeping disorder and missing several digs others make at his expense. He's earnest and heartfelt, and his motto is "You can't change the world, but you can make a dent." He spends most of the film trying to make a dent in the industry, pushing for healthier snack options on the show and more responsibility to the children themselves. Instead he ends up framed by Randolph, tricked into performing at a Nazi rally, and Smoochy ends up disgraced through no fault of his own. It's enough to make anyone lower themselves and fight just as dirty, but "Death to Smoochy" is a bit more sentimental than that. 

Smoochy does end up making a dent, changing the lives of everyone he encounters at KidNet. The ending of the film is surprisingly uplifting, and gives Randolph and Nora both a chance at redemption. It's surprisingly sweet for a movie that makes jokes of some of the darkest parts of the human experience, like addiction, depression, and greed. Williams gives one of his all-time best performances as the absolutely unhinged Randolph, a character who's a far cry from anything else the comedian ever tackled. He's a sad, broken man who believes he deserves more, and his entitlement led to his downfall. He's a jerk and a creep, but he's somehow still a little lovable, and that's entirely due to Williams. Even when he's acting like a larger-than-life caricature of a man, he's still delivering something so real and emotionally relevant that it's hard to hate him. 

A comedy ahead of its time

Many of the comedies I loved in my youth haven't aged particularly well. The late 1990s and early 2000s used a lot of shock comedy, and many slurs we would never use today run rampant. Even PG-13 films like "Can't Hardly Wait" and "Never Been Kissed" have moments of homophobia, uses of slurs, and more that make them a little uncomfortable these days. 

In "Death to Smoochy," there are no slurs and the characters who show discriminatory behavior are villainized for it. Randolph makes a few homophobic comments about Smoochy, but it's clear that he's grasping at straws and not a good man (and potentially he's projecting some self-loathing about his own sexuality). Only one thing feels potentially icky — a character who is a former boxer and took too many hits to the head. He's clearly suffering from some brain damage and behaves ridiculously, but he is very rarely the butt of the joke. Instead, he's a sweet man who deserves kindness, and the joke is on the people who treat him as lesser. The only exception is when he announces to a restaurant full of people that he needs to take a poop, but hey, poop is funny

At its core, "Death to Smoochy" is about how the world is cruel and cold, and sometimes all we have is one another. Fame and fortune can be great things, but they definitely aren't enough to make someone fulfilled. Whether you're the sweet-natured Sheldon or the raunchy Randolph, just a moment of understanding and love can mean the world. The world needs more people like Sheldon Mopes, who see what really matters and offer empathy even to enemies. Love can make a dent.