Though eluding the unofficial Hollywood policy against pitch black comedy, Danny DeVito's twisted vision of Death to Smoochy succumbs to a much worse pitfall: an underdeveloped script. Adam Resnick's screenplay is a couple of drafts short of a winner, but DeVito gets considerable mileage nonetheless with his directorial chutzpah and hardworking cast.
Too often, the strain of that hard work is evident in the performances of Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, and the eternally riffing Robin Williams. Top-billed Williams plays Rainbow Randolph, a children's TV host (sardonically dolled up like Williams's beatific toymaker from Toys) quickly dispatched from his job when caught in a sketchily defined kiddie payola scheme. The central figure is Norton as Sheldon Mopes (a.k.a. Smoochy), Randolph's Earth-day-poster-boy replacement (Norton adds his off-and-on Woody Harrelson impression to the movie's so-inside ouevre of jokes). Keener's Nora Wells heads up the managerial suits responsible for maintaining ratings in the money slot on Kidnet by installing Mopes and treating him as clueless on-camera "talent." In the rags-to-foam process of becoming the show's highly-paid executive producer and star, Mopes "befriends" a slimy agent (De Vito) and alienates Randolph, Wells, and in one of the film's best conceits, an organized crime syndicate operating under the name "Parade of Hope." Norton is amusing enough, though the script leaves him with few zingers, while Williams's crazy asshole routine connects, but wears thin. DeVito is confidentally funny, and Rispoli is uncharacteristically irresistable as a punch-drunk ex-boxer propped up by the Irish mafia. It's Keener who fares worst in a clichéd ice-queen-warms-up part which, again, mostly lacks the laugh lines.
Sometimes DeVito's flourishes score laughs in spite of the lazy script, such as the early scene in which a board of directors looms over Jon Stewart's exec--in a succession of perspective shots--like a panel of Gandalfs dwarfing Bilbo Baggins, or a dance sequence that plays like Williams's demented audition for a Billy Elliot sequel. Unfortunately, audiences may get the unshakeable feeling, as I did, that Resnick had written the wrong scenes, offering no more than a glimpse of Randolph's reign and foregoing genuine character development (both Wells and Randoph turn on dimes) in favor of redundant and obvious scenes of Randolph's mania and Mopes's goodhearted schlubbery.
Perhaps Smoochy's worst disapointment is its something-borrowed, something-purple attitude. Barney and Pee-Wee are somewhat musty targets, and besides, The Simpsons has definitively skewered the Romper Room set with its foul-mouthed, chain-smoking Krusty the Clown and homicidal Sideshow Bob. Props to Resnick and DeVito for not scrimping on the gallows humor, to Elvis Stojko for choreographing for a rhino on ice, and to the cast for a whole lot of compensatory energy, but unfortunately, Death to Smoochy is funny in fits more than starts.