Williams' Manic Menagerie

What do you get when you cross a rainbow-clad clown, midgets, a Barney-like purple rhinoceros, murder and plenty of mayhem? The result is Death to Smoochy, a pitch-black comedy directed by Danny DeVito (The War of the Roses, Matilda). This caricature juxtaposes its yang—children’s television, complete with its Barneys and Teletubbies—with its evil counterpart yin—the industry’s dark underside, with its deception, fraud and, yes, homicide.

In this two-sided comedy, the yin is representated by Rainbow Randolph, played by Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting, Aladdin). Within the first few minutes of the film, Randolph, the host of a popular and lucrative children’s show, gets arrested by the Feds for bribery and loses his show, his friends, his company suite and eventually his sanity. M. Frank Stokes, played by Jon Stewart (Half Baked, Big Daddy), and Nora Wells, played by Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich), are the television producers charged with finding a squeaky clean replacement for Randolph.

They settle on the movie’s yang, Smoochy, a big purple rhinoceros. Smoochy is the creation of the idealistic and utterly naive Sheldon Mopes, acted by Edward Norton (Fight Club, American History X). Randolph naturally finds Mopes’ usurpation of his life intolerable and psychotically sets about plotting Smoochy’s grisly demise.

The Harvard Crimson was recently able to take part in a group interview with Williams and DeVito about Death to Smoochy. Williams immediately emphasized the film’s adult content, warning, “Do not bring a child to this movie.” He relished playing something different than his usual kid-friendly characters: “To play a dark character is something I’ve wanted to explore for a while.” Williams also noted that Norton, who normally plays dark roles, went in the opposite direction with his portrayal of the good-hearted Mopes. Overall, the actor said he enjoyed working with Norton and DeVito, and gleefully described Death to Smoochy as “nasty funny.”

Co-star and director DeVito said he could not pass up the opportunity to create the “dark and quirky” Death to Smoochy.” Recognizing Smoochy’s abnormalities, he added, “I do tend to like films that take risks.” When asked which part of the movie-making process he enjoyed more, DeVito explained his preference for directing since it “gives you the most juice.”


However, if directing Death to Smoochy gives DeVito a lot of juice, he is one messed-up guy. This movie is not for the light-hearted, and intentionally interchanges between the blithe and the bloody. In one scene, Smoochy will be getting jiggy with it and in the next, a mobster will be headed toward axe-decapitation. The witty one-liners, harsh physical comedy and dark, biting tone force the audience to laugh out loud while squirming in their seats.

But despite its dark nature, Smochy’s sideplots lack originality. There have been corrupt children’s television hosts in the past; just look at Krusty the Clown on “The Simpsons.” Jokes about killing Barney and other stuffed characters have existed for years. Furthermore, the love/hate relationship between Mopes and Wells certainly has its precedents, reaching as far back as Shakespeare’s Benedick and Beatrice. Jokes about the Irish, mentally ill and phallic symbols all are not particularly new or groundbreaking either.

Smoochy’s strength is not in its originality, however, but in its execution. In fact, the movie’s self-awareness, especially in its capacity to shock the audience, is its forte. It knows that children’s television characters have been lampooned before. A reflection of the voluminous number of anti-Barney web pages, the film’s website,, offers 100 ways to kill Smoochy as well as interactive games where the purple rhinoceros is shot gunned, run-over and beaten to death. DeVito utilizes the incredible talent of the cast, however, to make the kiddy TV satire delve into new depths of ugliness and dark hilarity.

Williams and Norton, in novel roles for each actor, bring the darkness of the movie to life. We can see Williams’ Randolph struggle with unemployment, substance abuse and his sexual identity, while slipping slowly but surely into a dark chasm of insanity. On more than one occasion, Williams is let loose on an improvised, profanity-laced tirade. These tirades are reminiscent of the actor’s stand-up routines and are drop-dead funny. It is amazing that no one has let Williams play a villain before.

Norton shows his incredible range with the mopey Mopes. Norton makes Mopes’ “I want to do good” mentality believable, especially near the end of the movie when he gets a healthy dose of realism. Plus, Norton as Mopes as Smoochy is ridiculous; “Step-father,” one of Moochy’s songs about being patient with mom’s new husband, is pure brilliance.

The result of the gifted acting and sick plot lines is a spectacle of dark genius. Death to Smoochy is screwed up, but in a squeamishly delightful kind of way. It is entertaining from Randolph’s opening tap dance and song, “Friends Come in All Sizes,” until the climactic ice show, with enough wicked jokes and horrific hilarity to disturb even the most jaded viewer.

Plus, for those of you who harbor a secret, pent-up, homicidal hatred of Barney and his ilk, this movie will offer a safer if just as twisted alternative.


Death to Smoochy

Directed by Danny DeVito

Starring Robin Williams and Edward Norton

Warner Brothers