Death to Smoochy deserves another evaluation by film critics. The late Roger Ebert said on the film’s release nearly 12 years ago: "Only enormously talented people could have made Death to Smoochy. Those with lesser gifts would have lacked the nerve to make a film so bad, so miscalculated, so lacking any connection with any possible audience. To make a film this awful, you have to have enormous ambition and confidence, and dream big dreams.” Then again he’s dead so there’s no way to clarify such a confusing opening paragraph, but Ebert wasn’t alone—it was universally trashed and bombed commercially, such a lemon that Jon Stewart still boasts that he was the “fourth male lead” in Death to Smoochy. He even went so far as to apologize on air for “sucking” in the movie a year after its release. They were all daft.
Death to Smoochy is a lost masterpiece, a deeply morbid, cynical, and unsentimental film about Manhattan, the mob, physical and emotional violence, drug abuse, and most wonderfully fucked up of all, the superimposition of all this stuff against a thinly veined parody of Barney the Dinosaur. Smoochy’s pervert predecessor Rainbow Randolph, played by Robin Williams (what a good year for him—this and One Hour Photo alone, damn), takes a bad bribe from two groveling parents begging to have their “little booger-eater” sit on his lap during the opening theme “Friends Come In All Sizes.” They turn out to be NARCs, and Randolph is disgraced immediately and, hilariously, homeless. Ed Norton’s Sheldon Mopes, aka Smoochy the Rhino, goes from playing at a methadone clinic in Coney Island to dancing digitally all over Time Square’s monolithic video screens, smiling wide-eyed like a maniac (Mopes has anger management issues that are never fully resolved—besides that, the movie really is tight as a drum).
One of the funniest things about Death to Smoochy is how absurdly abrupt the changes are—characters are brutally murdered, but off screen, making a line like “Have you boys ever travelled together?” 10 times as chilling when it’s followed by a simple cut to a snowy Central Park. Randolph is gone, and not even a week later Smoochy has filled not only the choice time slot but the hearts of the children, the innocence that we see so cunningly manipulated and tainted by organized crime, shady agents like Danny DeVito, money-obsessed and morally bankrupt execs, and groveling sycophants like Jon Stewart’s character. Of course, when Randolph sets up Smoochy to appear at a gigantic neo-Nazi rally and Mopes is ostracized, the public and personal flips of alliance are not merely acknowledged but played up along with the rest of the film’s artifice.
This is a much more detailed movie than people give it credit for, even if most people my age (21) love it and have seen it multiple times. The art direction and the characters’ clothes mimic the orgasmic technicolors of children’s TV, and the music is not only strikingly well composed and catchy but hilarious enough that I wish there were more than a handful of original songs, like my absolute favorite, “My Stepdad’s Not Mean (He’s Just Adjusting).” It had the bad luck of coming out barely six months after 9/11 (its release, like many others made around the same time, was delayed to remove shoots of the felled WTC), and at the time, even though I liked it, the mood of the city and the country wasn’t up for such a gleefully misanthropic movie that was harsh, dark, and entirely plausible.
Especially one that fucked around with the kids and their innocence—as great as it is, there wasn’t a worse time to put out an aggressively pessimistic movie that excoriates kids’ TV and how easily manipulated our kids are, and how we allow them to be so influenced by meaningless visual stimulation so that the parents buy the toy, the soda, the shampoo, the dolls upon dolls upon talking dolls. In March 2002, people still needed to be sentimental, just to get on. Looking back, it’s no surprise Death to Smoochy bombed, or that its creators felt they had to apologize for their bad taste. But like I said, people my age know and love this movie, and its themes—the inhumanity of corporate television raising children, the sex, murder, money, and drugs that go on behind closed tours, the desperate fickleness of people—are just as relevant today.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1992