vivoboard August 10, 2018

This is the sixth instalment of The Heretic, a series in which our writers express a wildly unpopular opinion.

Aug. 11 marks the fourth anniversary of the passing of actor Robin Williams, tragically dead by his own hand at the age of 63.

Robin Williams and Edward Norton in the 2002 satire Death to Smoochy.

Robin Williams and Edward Norton in the 2002 satire Death to Smoochy.  (Photo: Takashi Seida)

He’s one of the celebrities I miss the most, a man of boundless wit and energy, and one of the most genuine. My interviews with him were always a pleasure.

It didn’t seem like a chore for him to talk about the many movies and TV shows he made over his nearly 40-year career. And when I think about Robin’s many career highlights, I don’t immediately leap to hit comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Morning, Vietnam and Jumanji, or dramas like his Oscar-winning turn in Good Will Hunting.

I think about 2002’s Death to Smoochy, a dark satire about Hollywood, stardom and the media, directed by and co-starring Danny DeVito. I loved it then and love it even more now, even while recognizing its many deficiencies.

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This makes me a very strange person and a movie critic outlier. Because while Death to Smoochy got only passing grades from audiences, it was reviled by my critical colleagues, many of whom really hated it. I know I’m supposed to hate it, too, but I can’t help loving it to death.

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Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times declared of Death to Smoochy that “in all the annals of the movies, few films have been this odd, inexplicable and unpleasant.”

Anne Hornaday of The Washington Post called Smoochy “a toxic little bonbon, palatable to only a chosen and very jaundiced few.” Geoff Pevere, my former colleague on the Star’s movies beat, reviewed it as “an annoying, strident misfire of a movie … you’ve got an experience you may well want to rename by the time you’ve wrestled yourself from its foam-rubber grip: Death by Smoochy.”

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Wow! Such vitriol for this humble little amusement, penned with mischievous glee by Saturday Night Live scribe Adam Resnick in the vein of Network and A Face in the Crowd.

Edward Norton is perfectly cast as Sheldon Mopes, a.k.a. the titular Smoochy, a naive children’s entertainer in a magenta-coloured rhino suit who plays guitar and sings silly songs of joy and affirmation, dancing the “Jiggy-Ziggy” with his kid cohort and extolling the virtues of healthy eating.

Williams plays Smoochy’s archrival Rainbow Randolph, a Technicolor-hued scoundrel who loses his lucrative children’s show on the KidNet TV network after he’s caught accepting bribes in an undercover FBI sting operation.

Randolph reacts with murderous rage when Smoochy replaces him on KidNet and rises to even greater acclaim. He damns Smoochy as a “Muppet from hell!”

Much of the movie has Randolph plotting to kill Smoochy, either literally or in career terms. The more Randolph tries to hurt Smoochy, the more he ends up with bumps and bruises of his own.

This film fully unleashes the dark side of Williams, something that was always just below the surface. You can feel that he really enjoys letting go. Think of the spontaneous happy dance he does on the streets of New York when he thinks he’s finally landed a knockout punch against Smoochy, after he peddles fake news that the Rhino is a neo-Nazi.

Resnick penned some very funny lines for Williams. As Randolph is being hustled away from a courthouse, a TV reporter asks him, “How does it feel to be voted Most Hated Man in America?”

“In a country full of Neanderthals, I wear it as an f–king badge of honour!” Randolph spits out.

Death to Smoochy also has sharp performances from Catherine Keener as the caustic KidNet talent wrangler who discovered Smoochy and now has to deal with him, and Jon Stewart as a KidNet stooge with a Moe Howard haircut. DeVito is also good as Smoochy’s conniving manager.

If I have one complaint about Death to Smoochy, it’s that DeVito and Resnick are a little scattershot in their approach, adding in too many characters. The film doesn’t need Michael Rispoli as a punch-drunk Irish boxer who wants to join Smoochy’s troupe and Harvey Fierstein as a gangster who wants Smoochy to back his favourite “charity.”

Ignore all this and just focus on Williams, whose quest to destroy and/or defame Smoochy is like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner. Watching this late, great comedian in Death to Smoochy makes me want to get out my guitar and sing a tune.

Sing along with Smoochy (and me):

“Where you can go when skies turn grey

Where the sun always shines and the animals play?

Where every day is a happy day

Well, Smoochy’s here to show the way.”

Peter Howell is the Star’s movie critic based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @peterhowellfilm

Credit: Critics be damned: Robin Williams’ Death to Smoochy is a dark delight

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