How in the world could so many talented people collaborate on a comedy as loathsome, misanthropic and unfunny as Death to Smoochy? A weak script, horrible characters, and a ludicrous plot doom the comedy which, thanks to its strong cast and funny-sounding premise, looked like a slam dunk.
Combining the lapsed fad of Barney-bashing with the "Gabbo Gabbo Gabbo" episode of "The Simpsons," the plot begins with the feud between fired kids television host Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) and his replacement, the singing rhinoceros Smoochy (Edward Norton). There's also room in the plot for a comely network exec (Catherine Keener), a sleazy agent (Danny DeVito), a cabal of Irish gangsters, and even an evil Jewish gangster (Harvey Fierstein), all of whom come together at the end of a children's ice show that doubles as an avant-garde interpretive dance. The machinations of the plot, of course, might be hard to follow if they weren't so meaningless.
The biggest problem with Death to Smoochy? The characters are so unfunny it's almost shocking. Edward Norton has never given a bad performance in six years of movies, but even he is challenged by the boring, one-dimensional character he's asked to play. He's a squeaky-clean guy who in a running joke is constantly eating and sharing organic food (ha ha) and his early scenes of hostility/flirtation with Keener are too openly hostile to work. The kid-show scenes (again, almost directly lifted from Michael Richards' Stanley Spadowski's Clubhouse schtick in UHF) aren't much better. Did the filmmakers think a guy singing in a rhinoceros suit is funny all by itself, and therefore he doesn't need any witty lines?
As for Williams, it could have been a step forward for him moving back into black comedy after years of schmaltz-fests like Patch Adams and What Dreams May Come. But his performance in "Smoochy" amounts to nothing more than self-parody - just more of the same funny voices and crazy hamming that he's been doing in movies and in his stand-up act for 20 years. And his character is such a pathetic, drunken sociopath that audiences are more likely to feel sorry for him than laugh at him.
Had the film simply been about the battle between the Norton and Williams characters, it may have stood a chance. But it becomes so cluttered with subplots that involve numerous other awful characters that it fails almost completely. None of the subplots involving the various gangsters and murder plots are even remotely funny, and the scenes involving a punch-drunk former boxer who joins Norton's show are so cringe-inducing that it's almost incomprehensible how they were allowed in the movie. And the product-placement is so ubiquitous that it becomes distracting; Death to Smoochy feels at times like a commercial for tourism in New York's Times Square.
Considering the level of comic talent together in this film, it's staggering how bad it is. Director Danny DeVito also made War of the Roses and Throw Momma From the Train, two classics of the dark-comedy genre. Williams' comic credentials have been well-documented, Keener was great in Being John Malkovich and Jon Stewart is currently more hip than anyone else in late-night American TV. I suppose we can blame screenwriter Adam Resnick - his script is so awful that it squanders some of the best comedic talent in the world.