Death to Smoochy (2002) (R)

"Death to Smoochy" sometimes comes across as the kind of movie that A-list stars throw time into to make money for more ambitious projects. It could look like a collective failure of agents; and yet the sheer number of big talents held within the movie is nothing if not an odd coincidence or a stroke of sheer genius. It's up to you to decide which.
At the movie's opening, we are introduced to a children's show host named Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) who is riding the high life of embezzlement and bribery. He takes people's money to ensure that their children make it on screen with him during some of his more peppy song moments. Unfortunately for him, his reach into the pockets may have gotten a bit too deep. At the beginning of the movie, he is arrested for accepting bribes and is immediately axed from public television.
Now the executives at KidNet are placing the crunch on Marlon Stokes (Jon Stewart) and Nora Wells (Catherine Keener) to find a clean replacement. This new host must have no blemishes, a real diamond in the rough.
With no alternative, Marlon decides that KidNet should try to employ Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton) probably better known for his alter-ego Smoochy the Rhino. This loser plays at meth-clinics and hospitals with parodies of popular songs that have a more morally appealing message. Nora is not a fan of Sheldon and thinks that his cheery, goodie-goodie attitude is almost too much to handle; but her hands are figuratively tied so she approaches Smoochy with a proposition of national television.
Sheldon is the diamond in the rough, this zen-obsessed, health food freak is ecstatic at her proposal because he thinks that television has finally changed and popular audiences now want wholesome morals and lovely songs that teach kids the hard truths of life without all the blood and tears. Nora is not so sure; but as soon as he assumes the filler position left by Rainbow Randolph, the ratings go through the roof and KidNet starts to see the potential for marketing.
While Sheldon struggles to always to the right thing and "not change the world, but make a dent", Randolph is in the worst mental spiral imaginable. He flies into rages of anger, jealously, and sabotage and does his best to ruin Smoochy's image and return himself to the small screen.
Meanwhile there is the mob. The Irish mob, let by Tommy Cotter (Pam Ferris) is the fearsome rulers of the city and they find interest in Smoochy's new show. Then there's Burke Bennett (Danny DeVito), who slimes his way into Sheldon's naive life and sets himself up as a smarmy agent. He has ties to Merv Green (Harvey Fierstein) who is the other leader of the mob in town. Tommy and Merv are the two kingpins that don't want to topple.
Immediately you can see how ridiculous "Death to Smoochy" is. I mean, it's a movie about kid's television that has not one but two gangster crowds involved in it. What the story's implausibility contains in spades, so does the movie's sense of sheer fun. While not as hilarious as I thought it might be, the movie is never dull and never too much.
Still, it has massive problems, most notably with how it treats Randolph and Sheldon and how the two story lines carry themselves. There is a sense of confusing momentum that becomes radically bizarre towards the end of the movie; but even that is forgivable.
Danny DeVito also directs this movie, which seems to be your worst nightmare of "Barney". It's a spoof of noir and a clumsily handled Coen-esque shaggy dog story that would have worked better with more capable hands. You can see this as a film which really wants to be "The Big Lebowski".
But all its faults don't stop it from being wonderfully mind-numbing and very watchable. It's easy entertainment, and what more do you want?

Score: ★★½

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