The Guilty Pleasures: “Death to Smoochy”
“I’m Rainbow f**kin’ Randolph! Kids love me!”
If there’s ever a quote to set the tone for what follows in a film, this one is absolutely perfect. I don’t know how many times my wife and I have watched this delightful and demented tale of a gentle, unassuming kid’s show host put through dark, seedy ringer that is kid’s television programming, but I can tell you that watching this movie for this first time in several years filled me with the same delight as the first time. What is it? It could be Edward Norton‘s golly shucks naive Sheldon Mopes react to a world he had no idea existed, or Robin Williams‘ insane Rainbow Randolph trying drag the rhino through the mud. It could also be my own cynical feeling for how I suppose things must really work in show business, children’s entertainment included.
Directed by Danny DeVito, Death to Smoochy follows Edward Norton as Sheldon Mopes, a pure-hearted aspiring children’s show host who lucks his way into a prime spot on a prime network, much to the chagrin of the spot’s former holder, Robin William’s Rainbow Randolph. As Mopes becomes more involved in producing his own show, he meets more and more corrupt behind-the-scenes figures that want to use him to make a few dollars for themselves. Released in 2002, Smoochy did not perform very well in the box office. Produced for approximately $50 million, it grossed only a measly $8 million and change. It received very poor reception, to say the least. I wholeheartedly disagree, however. I feel that its performances carry a story skewering kid’s shows as no better than the rest of show-business: filled with seedy no good people trying to make a buck at others’ expenses.
Another detail I’ll elaborate on is that this movie was written by Adam Resnick. You may or may not remember another article I wrote about my undying love for, Cabin Boy, which Resnick co-wrote and directed. Resnick certainly has a voice all his own, and watching this movie is almost like reading a dissertation on how terrible live children’s shows actually are. Oddly enough, Chris Elliott’s character in Cabin Boy and Edward Norton’s in Smoochy aren’t really all that different. They’re both dopey, naïve guys in way over their heads. The difference is that this movie paints that characteristic in a completely different way – here’s it’s played as a virtue. In Cabin Boy, Elliott is often derided for his “moronic innocence.” I wonder what would’ve happened if Chris Elliott played the main character? A boy can dream.
The movie opens on a big musical number featuring Rainbow Randolph. He’s singing and dancing alongside his Krinkle Kids (little people in costumes) about how friends come in all sizes. He’s wearing a sequined rainbow-colored jacket and a white bowler hat that covers a wig of long, blond hair, with white pants to match. His face twinkles with glitter smeared on his cheeks. There’s a big orchestra soundtrack underneath his song, and it’s easy to see why he’s so popular. The children seated on the grandstand in the background cheer and sing along. It’s a saccharin-sweet affair. The very next scene shows Williams out of costume in a dark corner of a dark bar, accepting bribe money from a pair of loving parents who just want their “little booger eater” to be on TV. It turns out it’s a sting operation, as Williams is arrested on the spot. He’s fired from his spot on Kidnet, a TV network that produces such shows. The entire movie is similarly paced in this manner, juxtaposing bright, colorful moments against the dark, dark characters behind them.
From there, Jon Stewart’s Frank Stokes and Catherine Keener’s Nora Wells hole up in an office scrambling to find a replacement. What’s great about this scene is how the movie paints its potential replacements. Each candidate’s profile is cast aside, as the pair discuss their various issues – deported, heroin addict, etc. – until they stumble upon Sheldon Mopes, a person so squeaky clean that they don’t want to enlist him but are forced to, as all the other candidates are completely unacceptable. We then meet Mopes as he plays a set at a drug clinic on Coney Island, his audience a group of junkies nodding off to the songs.
Mopes then brings Smoochy, a friendly purple rhino, to life for Smoochy’s Magic Jungle, a folksy-inspired kid’s show aimed at teaching children to be accepting and healthy. As he becomes more involved in producing the show, he meets several characters that don’t have the show’s intended audience’s best interests at heart. First, Nora Wells is a jaded company executive who treats Mopes like a child. There’s also Angelo Pike, played by Danny Woodburn. He’s a former Krinkle Kid-turned Rhinette. Before the first show, Mopes thanks Angelo for coming aboard for the new show, to which Angelo replies “a job’s a job.” Then, enter Danny DeVito’s Burke Bennett, a talent agent who seems to have more experience in organized crime than in kid’s shows, and Merv Green, played by Harvey Fierstein, the head of the Parade of Hope, a children’s charity that fronts as his own criminal enterprise. Add to this Robin Williams trying to publicly embarrass Smoochy just so Rainbow Randolph can have his own time slot back, and Mopes begins to get in over his head. He just thought he’d be singing songs to children. He had no idea what he was getting himself into.
I love Edward Norton in this. More so than American History X, this movie made me appreciate him as an actor. He plays Sheldon Mopes as a lovable, but dopey and naïve guy who just wants to share his message with children. He is so well-intentioned throughout the entire movie, and he remains so level-headed no matter what he’s faced with, that it’s hard not to root for him. My favorite character moments are when his shiny personality to crack a little when the going gets rough. There are a few little moments that seem to suggest that Mopes has seen some rough times, and they make me love him all the more for it.
Then there’s Robin Williams. I could go into detail about how well he portrays Rainbow Randolph, but all I’d really need to tell you is that he plays an unhinged, disgraced and corrupt kid’s show host in an R-rated dark comedy, and that would be all the explanation you would need to understand just how enjoyable it is to watch him in this movie. It’s as if the director (DeVito) just explained the character Williams would be playing and said “go.”
From penis-shaped cookies to Nazi rallies and ice shows, this movie has it all. There are so many fun moments in this move that make it a pleasure to watch. I also love how much fun Resnick has with making out the children’s show industry to be nothing more than a bunch of mobsters who approach every single problem the same way – intimidation, the murder. I highly suggest giving this movie a go, and remember, friends come in all sizes!
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