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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014

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"Death to Smoochy" is a major let-down


All the ingredients for a nasty dark comedy are present. Screenwriter Adam Resnick has won awards for his work with David Letterman and HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show." The cast includes Edward Norton, Robin Williams, Catherine Keener and Jon Stewart. Co-star Danny DeVito directs. And the premise is ripe with possibilities.

Because of the elevated expectations due to the immense amount of talent involved, "Death To Smoochy" is a major letdown. While it never becomes a debacle, by the end it's nothing more than a squandered opportunity.

Rainbow Randolph Smiley (Williams) is the host of the highest rated kid's show on television. Instead of allowing us to get to know him a little, the film immediately has Randolph getting busted by the FBI for taking cash bribes from parents who want their kids on his show.

The network, Kidnet, needs a replacement fast. President M. Frank Stokes (Stewart) wants someone with no criminal history or shady background. That leaves out all of the most popular candidates, who suffer from, among other ailments, heroin addictions and alcoholism.

That leaves Smoochy, otherwise known as Sheldon Mopes (Norton). Network exec Nora Wells (Keener) finds him performing to smack addicts in a rundown methadone clinic on Coney Island. He's singing a hilarious song to them about kicking their habit.

Smoochy, a huge purple rhino, quickly rises to the top. He gets Randolph's Manhattan penthouse, takes over the number one spot, has himself plastered on a billboard in Times Square and sees him dreams come true.

But squeaky clean, naive Sheldon isn't prepared for the cutthroat world of children's television. Nora won't take his creative input for the show, an agent (played by DeVito) wants him to sell out and do whatever it takes to make piles of money and Randolph will do whatever it takes to smear Smoochy's name and get his show back.

There is plenty to work with here, and there are times when "Death To Smoochy" displays the kind of movie it could (and should) have been. Examples include a scene where Smoochy pulls a cookie shaped like male genitalia out of a bag in front of children and a studio audience, which is one of Randolph's schemes to tarnish Smoochy, while another has the rhino singing an extremely funny song about accepting stepfathers, who are just like new puppies and need to adjust.

But it doesn't take enough risks and plays it safe too often. A romance between Sheldon and Nora is forced, unbelievable and unnecessary. This movie doesn't need it, and all it does is drag things out and increase the conventional elements, of which there are too many.

The last 30 minutes or so is especially unsatisfying. DeVito and Resnick apparently became afraid of alienating audiences and settle for a moronic shootout, foot chase and happy ending. By now, any edginess has left the building.

The characters are also a problem. Williams, in a small supporting role, is given no background and little to do. He screams every time he's on screen and is more annoying than funny. He does have a few good one-liners, but they are few and far between.

Norton, who is a phenomenally good actor, as evidenced in "American History X" and "Fight Club," among others, is extremely bland here. He is never quite convincing and fails to solidly grasp the role. He's wholesome and clueless one minute, smart and savvy the next, and uneven from start to finish.

"Death To Smoochy" has its share of moments and does provide some hearty laughs. But the ingredients don't mix and it fails to work as a dark comedy and satire, opting to play it safe and become a routine Hollywood comedy by the time the credits roll.

"Death To Smoochy" opens at theaters everywhere on Fri., March 29. Click here for showtimes.


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