These days, the only time you hear about Danny DeVito’s 2002 black comedy Death To Smoochy is when it’s the punch-line to The Daily Show host’s Jon Stewart’s habitual self-mockery of his acting career, the pinnacle of which, he quips, was as the film’s “fourth male lead”. In actual fact, the genial Stewart was being a little self-aggrandising: he was at best fifth. “Ho-Ho” etc.
If Stewart’s amusing self-deprecation gives the impression that Death To Smoochy was a bad film – he’s also played on the fact that it was the last film he ever appeared in – then the film’s performance certainly reinforces that notion. Despite receiving a wide release in over 2000 cinemas in the U.S, it was a box-office disaster, grossing just over $8 million from a budget of $50 million and international earnings were negligible (although, in the U.K, the film was the victim of sheer bad luck as the intended distributor went under shortly before the release date, so only attendees of the press screenings ever saw it). The reviews were mixed and it swiftly swan-dived into obscurity.
It was an ignominious fate for a film that appeared to have a lot going for it. A merciless and gleefully misanthropic skewering of the world of Kids TV (a wonderfully designed one, too…), it had the the presence of two high-profile stars in Robin Williams and Edward Norton, bolstered by a fantastic supporting cast including DeVito, Catherine Keener, Pam Ferris, Harvey Fierstein and Stewart. Then there was the fact that, as a director, DeVito had a proven track record in the realms of satire tinted with gallows humour, notably with 1987’s Throw Momma From The Train and 1989’s The War of The Roses. DeVito himself seemed genuinely perplexed by the film’s reception, ruefully opening his commentary on the film’s DVD release with: “Hello. It’s Danny. It’s been, um… I guess now a few months since the release of Death to Smoochy, so the mourning period is over…”
The film’s outright failure has always surprised me because it’s actually a tremendously funny film. Williams, who at the time was exercising his acting muscles with considerably darker roles in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia and after Smoochy, One Hour Photo, is terrific as the hugely popular but woefully corrupt host “Rainbow Randolph” whose wilful bribery of parents desperate to have their kids centre stage on Randolph’s show is exposed by a Police sting operation (“And for what, Randy?? Asswipe Money!” admonishes Stewart’s similarly-corrupt TV executive) and which launches him into a hilariously-embittered vendetta with Norton’s swiftly-placed, squeaky-clean successor Sheldon Mopes a.k.a “Smoochy The Rhino”. Long criticised for squandering his huge comedic talents in overly-saccharine roles, here Williams puts his famed manic energy and improvisational skills to great use in creating a proper bastard sinking to increasingly amusing lows. Randolph’s efforts to sabotage Smoochy’s show with phallic-shaped cookies (“They’re made from dil-dough!”) and later frame him as a neo-Nazi ringleader are particular highlights of Williams’ performance, which, quite unbelievably, got nominated for a Razzie Award.
Moreover, it’s a satire with real bite. However: this, I suspect, was a big part of Smoochy’s downfall. Culturally, Kids TV is something of a sacred cow in the U.S, a slice of Americana that generated genuine and fiercely-loved icons from long-running and resolutely clean-cut shows like Sesame Street and Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood. A mainstream Hollywood film portraying it, therefore, as riddled with corruption, graft and Mafia ties, eagerly pursuing barely-concealed commercial agendas, with presenters who are heroin addicts and which manipulates children’s perceptions – beautifully done in a sequence where Norton’s Smoochy leads a group of kids in a song about dealing with an abusive stepfather – was always going to struggle to get a widespread audience, especially in the ultra-sensitive national mood that dominated America post-9/11.
Yet, in the years since, Death To Smoochy has never graduated to full cult status – not really – which is surprising as it has all the hallmarks of a solid and enduring cult film, not least via a script stuffed with quotable lines. There’s no time limit on attaining cultdom, obviously, but it’s a film that’s undoubtedly ripe for rediscovery and reassessment no matter what. Nowhere near as poor as dismissive reviews, vastly-erroneous Razzie nominations and Jon Stewart quips might lead you to assume, DeVito delivered a dark comedy to savour.