Ideally, children’s entertainment doesn’t just entertain; it also teaches its audience how the world works. But since the world can be a scary, sad, unknowable place, children’s entertainment often resorts to little white lies to make it seem kinder than it really is. This is why we tend to revere children’s entertainment like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street, which manage to speak to children honestly and with integrity rather than treating them as grubby mini-consumers. I suspect that’s part of the reason 2002’s Death To Smoochy—which stars Edward Norton as a costume-wearing children’s entertainer with a pure heart and clear mind who wants to do good in a world that makes that nearly impossible—was received less as a failed film than as a cross between an insult and a public embarrassment.
In the pitch-black comedy directed by Danny DeVito, the universe is essentially an evil machine designed to crush souls. Like the Coen brothers and Billy Wilder before him, DeVito likes to shoot his actors from extreme angles on giant sets that reinforce just how miniscule they are in the grand scheme of things. And as Death To Smoochy begins, our sweet-natured protagonist seems quite tiny. Wearing a cheap pink rhino costume to play a character named Smoochy The Rhino, Norton’s reduced to performing free shows on Friday night at the Coney Island Methadone Clinic for an audience that tends to nod off during his songs, no matter how upbeat they are. Norton doesn’t see these gigs as humiliating; he sees them as an opportunity to do good for people in need, and that’s more important to him than money or fame. At least in the beginning. Norton plays the protagonist as a man without guile, a sweetheart who assumes that everyone is as open, honest, and sincere as he is, when no one is as open, honest, and sincere as he is. He’s a man whose innate decency makes him something of a freak.
Norton’s pleasantly sleepy existence changes forever when an evil corporate conglomerate (whose members include the eternally dyspeptic Jon Stewart, in his most high-profile film role to date) publicly humiliates a children’s-entertainment powerhouse played by Robin Williams, then goes looking for a performer with unimpeachable integrity. That’s a tall order considering Death To Smoochy makes the children’s-entertainment business look like the mafia minus the hugs and giggles. It’s a rancid world populated by sinister figures with ominous nicknames like Buggy Ding-Dong (heroin mule), Square Dance Danny (wife-beater), and Princess Poppy (you don’t want to know).
When cynical executive Catherine Keener comes to see Norton at his methadone clinic gig, he naively mistakes her for a junkie despite her impeccable upscale-professional veneer. In a soft stoner drawl redolent of the honeyed accents of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, Norton tenderly inquires of Keener, “You came here on the H train right? You’re riding the horse, on the juice?” Norton lacks a filter or anything resembling cynicism, so he processes everything sincerely. When Keener jokes of the folks who nod off during the end of his set at the methadone clinic, “At least you know it’s the smack that’s knocking them out and not your singing,” Norton replies “God, I hope so” with a seriousness that suggests it’s a real concern. Later, when DeVito (who also plays Norton’s agent) tells him, “Pretty soon you’re going to be pissing on $100 bills just to see the look on Franklin’s face,” Norton responds, with wonderfully misplaced sincerity, “I could never do that. I have much too much respect for what that man accomplished.”
Norton may be a goober and an unabashed do-gooder, but he is not without ego. Norton’s sweet-hearted nature belies something of a God complex. When Norton tells Keener that he was born the night Sesame Street first aired, it has the grandiose ring of destiny. Norton also takes what he does extremely seriously. When Keener tells him, through gritted teeth, that she and her giant conglomerate are ready to commit to producing a show of Smoochy-caliber integrity, Norton indulges in a gloriously unselfconscious, uninhibited dance of pure glee. In the purest manifestation of his martyr complex, Norton tells a bartender, “Don’t get me wrong, okay, I’m not literally comparing Captain Kangaroo to Jesus Christ. I’m just saying that the Captain, like Christ, was someone you could really, really believe in.” Like Captain Kangaroo and also Jesus Christ, Norton sees himself as someone kids can believe in.
Keener, like nearly everyone else in the movie, sees Norton as a useful idiot, a slow-moving, dimwitted guppy in an ocean full of professional sharks. Keener doesn’t talk to Norton so much as she talks through him. To Keener, he’s nothing more than a means to an end. Another character nails his fundamental appeal when they deride/hail him as nothing more or less than “a harmless ethical cornball. He’s a bottle of pancake syrup with legs!”
Norton’s rapid ascent to the apex of the kiddie-entertainment hierarchy drives Williams to fits of rage and madness. In a bid to humiliate Norton, he sticks a cookie shaped like a cock and balls into the Smoochy show’s magical cookie bag, then watches in horror as Norton makes lemonade out of suspiciously phallic lemons by improvising that the offensive cookie is a rocket ship. This sequence points to the film’s biggest weakness: Robin Fucking Williams as Rainbow “Fucking” Randolph.
In Death To Smoochy, Williams plays rampaging, untethered id. The problem is that Williams almost always plays rampaging, untethered id. When tethered, he’s forced to act, something he’s surprisingly good at in the right role. Alas, Rainbow Randolph isn’t a role so much as an invitation to go balls-out with the riffing and the screaming and the deafening, exhausting, and sometimes-unbearable wackiness. Death To Smoochy is manic throughout, but whenever Williams is onscreen it shifts from ingratiatingly manic to shrill. Williams eats up all the oxygen in the room, and whenever he’s onscreen, the film is reduced to the one-joke premise of putting filthy words and evil thoughts inside cuddly kiddie-show performers. Norton delivers a deft, dramatic performance as a fundamentally decent but arrogant man nearly done in by temptation, while Williams is reduced to trying to make children giggle by spinning endless colorful euphemisms for penises and testicles. The two operate at cross-purposes: Norton’s performance grounds the movie, while Williams’ begins at 10 and only goes up from there.
Norton begins the film a daft innocent, but it isn’t long until temptation comes calling in the form of DeVito’s agent, who knows that the usual appeals to greed, lust, and drugs won’t work. Instead, he appeals to Norton’s ego by offering him the exhilarating promise of creative control over the show. Norton wants power for the right reasons. He wants to use what he is still deluded enough to consider his show as a soapbox to promote healthy eating, civility, and politeness. But he still longs for power, and that alone is enough to corrupt him.
Written by longtime Chris Elliott collaborator Adam Resnick, Death To Smoochy wouldn’t work comedically or dramatically if Norton didn’t have a relatively pristine soul to corrupt. Parks & Recreation didn’t begin to live up to its enormous potential until it began to find the honor and poetry in Leslie Knope’s civic-minded idealism as well as the humor. It’s easy and cheap to mock the Pollyanna-ish self-delusion of the do-good brigade in Parks & Recreation and Death To Smoochy, but it’s much more compelling to try to understand it. It’s even more compelling to honor it, as Death To Smoochy does throughout; Norton plays a comic character, to be sure, but underneath the film’s free-flowing misanthropy lies a real respect for what Keener describes as Norton’s “fetish for ethics.”
Keener at first treats Norton with intricately worded (and very funny contempt) that registers less as meanness than brutal honesty. She’s a former kids’-show groupie who’s had to harden herself in order to survive in the Darwinian business of children’s television. Keener’s performance suggests that there is good somewhere deep within her soul, but whatever innocence she once possessed died at the hands of adult compromises. There’s nobility and even a little idealism left in her, but she’s buried it so deep it takes the megawatt innocence of someone like Norton to illuminate it. Keener’s feelings toward Norton begin to shift from “uncomplicated hatred” to “complicated affection” once she sees how ripped he is out of his Smoochy suit, and they bond over fond memories of “Rickets The Hippo,” whom they both revered in their youth.
Keener’s character appears to have a soul worth saving. The same cannot be said of Williams, who finally succeeds in publicly humiliating his arch-nemesis when he tricks him into performing at a massive Neo-Nazi rally held in what appears to be Madison Square Garden. Norton instantly becomes a pariah: “I’m being unfavorably compared to Goebbels,” he notes at the height of his infamy.
Death To Smoochy’s plot has Norton and Williams eventually putting aside their differences to focus on their real enemy: a conspiracy to murder Norton while he performs at a climactic ice show so a new, more embezzlement-friendly kid’s host can replace him. The assassin is Buggy Ding-Dong, a debauched and disgraced former kiddie show star played by Vincent Schiavelli, a ghoulish character actor with a face even a mother would find disturbing. In the end, Norton is almost, but not quite, corrupted by his shadowy descent into the wicked world of children’s television. At the climax he’s sorely tempted to shoot DeVito, one of the men behind the conspiracy to kill him, but pulls back at the very last moment. Norton has been soiled by his experiences as a kiddie star, but a core of goodness remains.
That goodness, combined with a surplus of nasty wit and clever lines, saves Death To Smoochy. Norton’s sweetness undercuts the corrosive nastiness of everything around it and we get songs like “My Stepdad’s Not Mean, He’s Just Adjusting.” In the end, Death To Smoochy is, however paradoxically, an extraordinarily mean-spirited dark comedy unexpectedly redeemed by it protagonist’s niceness.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success