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'Death to Smoochy'

'Death to Smoochy' is a darkly comic look at the children's TV racket

Friday, March 29, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Talk about naive. Sheldon Mopes, also known as a fuchsia-colored rhino named Smoochy, thinks children's entertainment is about "doing good work."

'Death To Smoochy'

RATING: R for language and sexual references

STARRING: Robin Williams, Edward Norton

DIRECTOR: Danny DeVito

WEB SITE: deathtosmoochymovie.com



Mister Rogers endorses that credo, but he lives in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and public television, not Kidnet where the host of a children's show is there to "sell sugar and plastic" and tickets to ice shows. It's about doing a good job raking in the rugrats and their parents' money.

That's what Randolph Smiley (Robin Williams) does, as costumed star of the Kidnet hit "Rainbow Randolph." On screen, he's all sunny smiles, sparkly suits and syrupy songs. Off screen, he's pounding back Johnnie Walker and accepting bribes from stage parents. When one couple with a suitcase of cash turn out to be feds, Randolph is busted and thrown off the air.

Enter Smoochy (Edward Norton), the squeaky clean replacement chosen by the network president (Jon Stewart). When a programming executive named Nora (Catherine Keener) goes to find the man inside the suit, Sheldon is working a Coney Island methadone clinic where he's serenading the junkies with "Oh, we'll get you off that smack, oh yes we will" to the tune of "She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain."

He's as principled and ethical as they come, which puts him at odds with Nora, the network, shadowy show backers and Randolph, who wants nothing more than to embarrass and disgrace the man who inherited his studio space, costumed midgets and pint-size fans. Along the way he picks up an agent (Danny DeVito in a black mustache that screams disreputable) and a devoted fan in a former boxer whose mobbed up family runs a bar.

"Death to Smoochy" may star Williams, but this is no family film. It's a very black, R-rated comedy written by Adam Resnick and directed by DeVito in the style and tone he brought to "Throw Momma From the Train" and "The War of the Roses." He dazzles us with time-lapse photography, tight close-ups, deep colors and shadowy scenes; it's as if we're children and must be amused at all times.

Anyone who ever sat through a kiddie ice show or "Barney" tape should appreciate the subject matter. Resnick calls children's television "Enron with a prettier shell."

But the writer, whose credits include "Late Night With David Letterman" and "The Larry Sanders Show" along with "Get a Life" and "Cabin Boy," lets his story get away from him about two-thirds of the way through. In addition, one character undergoes an instant personality change and another dangles an intriguing tidbit from his past and then never mentions it again.

Still, Norton puts aside all those angry young men roles, adopts a soft accent that makes him sound like Matthew McConaughey and nicely wears the Smoochy suit. Williams, who sounds like he might be ad-libbing part of the time, throws himself into Rainbow Randolph and is thrown into walls, a piano and onto a table in a role that requires him to be beaten up and beaten down.

Nobody does sleazy better than DeVito, and Keener steps outside her usual indie showcase to bring some crackle to her role. Showing up in small parts are Harvey Fierstein, Michael Rispoli from "The Sopranos," Vincent Schiavelli and Danny Woodburn, who played Kramer's 4-foot-tall pal Mickey on "Seinfeld."

Sheldon/Smoochy likes to say, "You can't change the world, but you can make a dent." That pretty much sums up the movie.

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