It was easy to sympathize with the mindset of “Rainbow Randolph” Smiley, the former TV kiddie-show host played by Robin Williams in Death to Smoochy. Axed from his high-profile gig after a payola scandal, Randolph comes to loathe his replacement—hyper-earnest Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton) and his pink rhinoceros alter-ego Smoochy. The guy and everything he represents so torment Randolph that he’s ready to contemplate homicide to keep Smoochy off our screens.
And I sympathize, because that’s sort of how I’ve come to think about Robin Williams over the years.
Once upon a time, Williams was a gifted actor, a guy who made a deft transition from TV’s hyper-kinetic Mork to effective dramatic work in The World According to Garp and Moscow on the Hudson. But somewhere along the way, he seemed to stop caring about subjugating any part of his performance to the film in which he was appearing. Williams’ on-screen work over the past five or six years—Fathers’ Day, Flubber, Good Will Hunting, Patch Adams, Jakob the Liar, Bicentennial Man—can be distilled to two equally annoying ideas: “Look at me, I’m a clown!” or “Look at me, I’m a serious actor!”
Death to Smoochy begins with a great satirical premise: How cutthroat might the multi-billion dollar, merchandising-obsessed world of children’s entertainment actually be? It delivers caustic dialogue and musical interludes that are absolutely inspired in their dementia. And every time you start to wonder if you’re watching a classic in the making, Williams screams back into the picture and kicks everything around him out of the way.
The most ironic thing is that for all practical purposes, Williams’ character is irrelevant to the film’s central story. The script by Adam Resnick—a veteran of another stinging show-biz satire, The Larry Sanders Show—is really about Sheldon, a squeaky-clean health-food nut plucked out of obscurity, who sees his show as a chance to really make a difference with kids. And even without Williams, there’s a lot of plot packed into the familiar premise of the well-intentioned naÃ¯f trying to stay uncorrupted by fame and fortune. KidNet exec Nora (Catherine Keener) and Sheldon squabble over principles. An Irish gangster (Pam Ferris) pressures Sheldon into hiring her simple-minded ex-boxer nephew (Michael Rispoli). A corrupt charity that skims off the top of promotional appearances threatens Sheldon if he won’t do “Smoochy on Ice.”
It’s a busy script, busily directed by Danny DeVito, but much of it works because the details are so magnificently absurd. In one hilarious musical number, Smoochy serenades his young audience with the helpful ditty “My Stepdad’s Not Mean (He’s Just Adjusting).” The film’s climax finds Sheldon turning the Smoochy ice show into an impressionistic montage of his roller-coaster experience with the dark underbelly of celebrity. At the center of this hurricane of parody stands Norton, who plays Sheldon’s altruism completely straight in a splendidly funny performance. Norton understands the film’s tone, and his place in it.
Robin Williams does not. Death to Smoochy may be a loud and manic film in its way, but nothing gets louder or more manic than Williams at his most self-indulgent. As the drunken, disgraced Randolph, he “improvises” a string of epithet-filled showpieces for himself nearly every time he appears in a scene. And because Randolph’s desire for revenge is only peripheral to the narrative—despite an ad campaign that would have you believe otherwise—his appearances become even more jarring, as though Williams were desperately trying to use his limited screen time to convince you that Randolph actually matters. By the time Randolph’s journey becomes a quest for redemption, it’s hard to care about the foul-mouthed cartoon Williams has turned him into. Wile E. Coyote was imbued with a more convincing sense of humanity.
Death to Smoochy’s script is hardly an example of perfect construction to begin with, but at its best, there’s a brilliant audacity to it. Robin Williams comes to the project, as he has most projects recently, determined to impose his own sense of audacity on the proceedings, consequences be damned. At the age of 50, Williams still hasn’t figured out when the best thing for a film is for him to stop Morking off.