Today’s feature is Danny DeVito’s twisted depiction of the cracked world of children’s entertainment: Death to Smoochy.
Death to Smoochy was written by Adam Resnick, who is best known for the movie Cabin Boy and his extensive writing work on The Late Show with David Letterman, The Larry Sanders Show, and Saturday Night Live.
Death to Smoochy was directed by noted actor Danny DeVito, who was also behind such films as War of the Roses, Matilda, Hoffa, and Throw Momma From The Train.
The cinematographer for the movie was Anastas Michos, who also shot Keeping the Faith and The Big Kahuna, and worked as a camera operator on such films as Quiz Show, Lean on Me, and Born on the Fourth of July.
The editor on Death to Smoochy was Jon Poll, who is known for cutting films like Captain America, Monkeybone, Cabin Boy, Meet the Parents, and Mystery, Alaska.
The team of producers behind the film included Andrew Lazar (American Sniper, Jonah Hex, Confessions of A Dangerous Mind), Peter Macgregor-Scott (The Jerk, Revenge of the Nerds, Batman & Robin, Under Siege), Doug Davison (The Grudge, The Departed), John Kreidman (Watchmen, The Smurfs 2, Zookeeper), and Joshua Levinson (Matilda, Jonah Hex, Gattaca).
The musical score for Death to Smoochy was composed by David Newman, who also scored such films as Galaxy Quest, The Mighty Ducks, Jingle All The Way, Ice Age, Tommy Boy, Norbit, The Spirit, Serenity, Heathers, War of the Roses, and Matilda, among many others.
The visual effects team for the movie was composed of Lincoln Kupchak (Red Planet, Blood Diamond), John Mesa (Army of Darkness, Darkman), Penny Mesa (Deep Blue Sea, Red Planet), William Mesa (976-EVIL, The Italian Job), Dan Novy (24, The Guardian), Jeffrey A. Okun (Suburban Commando, Shocker, Die Hard 2, Sphere), L. Elizabeth Powers (Son of the Mask, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Daredevil), Liz Radley (Collateral, On Deadly Ground, Batman & Robin), Ken Stranahan (Red Planet, Deep Blue Sea, Son of the Mask), James Tittle (Suspect Zero, Red Eye, Dreamcatcher, Gigli, Stealth), and Jeffrey White (Holes, Red Planet).
The special effects unit for Death to Smoochy included such names as Taku Dazai (Slither, Dracula 2000), Aaron Dinsmore (The Incredible Hulk, Dracula 2000), Walter Klassen (Jason X), David Kleinstein (Frequency, Boardwalk Empire), David Loveday (Blues Brothers 2000, X-Men, Lucky Number Slevin, 300), Jim McGillivary (Pompeii, Silent Hill), Laird McMurray (Crimson Peak, Pixels, Pacific Rim, Stuck, The Dead Zone), Jim Peacock (Saw V, Tommy Boy), John Poulter (Secret Window, Taking Lives, Stuck), David Reaume (Glitter, Chicago, Silent Hill, Kick-Ass, Devil), John Stifanich (The Substitute 2, Signs, Boardwalk Empire), and Stephen Wallace (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World).
The makeup effects team for the film included Marlene Aarons (Repo Men, Max Payne), Tim Mogg (Glitter, Death Wish V), Ve Neill (Ed Wood, Beetlejuice, Laserblast, Kingdom of the Spiders), Pipsan Ayotte (Pacific Rim, The Love Guru), and Selena Evans-Miller (Major Payne, Matinee, The Waterboy).
The deep cast of Death to Smoochy was made up of Robin Williams (Insomnia, Patch Adams, Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, One Hour Photo, The Birdcage, The Fisher King), Edward Norton (Fight Club, Primal Fear, The Illusionist, Rounders, Red Dragon), Danny DeVito (Batman Returns, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, L.A. Confidential, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Twins), Jon Stewart (The Faculty, The Daily Show), Pam Ferris (Matilda, Children of Men, The Raven), Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich, Capote, Hamlet 2, The Soloist, Captain Phillips), and Harvey Fierstein (Independence Day), among others.
Reportedly, Jim Carrey turned down a role in Death To Smoochy in order to make the film The Majestic, which released in 2001.
Robin Williams earned a Golden Raspberry nomination for worst actor for his role of Rainbow Randolph in Death To Smoochy, but wound up losing out to Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker from Attack of the Clones.
The budget for Death To Smoochy was reportedly $50 million, of which it made back less than $8.5 million theatrically. Needless to say, it was a massive financial flop.
At the time of its release, critics were really tough on the twisted dark comedy, earning it aggregate scores of 38% from MetaCritic and 42% from Rotten Tomatoes. In particular, Roger Ebert gave the movie a scathing review, which opened as follows:
“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.”
That said, public perception towards the movie has softened over time, and it currently holds an IMDb rating of 6.4 alongside a Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 66%.
I personally have fond memories of watching this movie on the cable channel Comedy Central, where it played in numerous blocks over the years. This heavy replay time almost certainly helped win over much of its current cult following.
Another reason for the movie’s cult popularity is similarly tied to Comedy Central: the massive rise in popularity of Jon Stewart, who was only a couple of years into his run at The Daily Show when the film released. Throughout the show’s run, he would often reference his involvement with the movie as an example of his acting (in)experience, exposing it to new people with each passing mention.
Most of the criticism leveled against Death to Smoochy at the time of its release focused on its cynical and allegedly “mean-spirited” screenplay. Personally, I’ve never quite understood those complaints: the story is darkly comedic, but it isn’t “mean-spirited” towards any particular characters, outside of the deserving corporate flunkies and would-be murderers.
My biggest issue with the film, if you can call it that, is with the acting. Both Norton and Williams are beyond over-the-top in their portrayals, to the point that they both seem like caricatures more than humans, like the yin and yang of overacting. That said, the lack of identifiable humanity and excess of cheesy showmanship displayed oddly fits both of their characters well. As children’s entertainers, of course they would be off-putting, eccentric, and clown-like. I have to assume, because of the immense talent on all sides of the camera here, that this is what the team had in mind for the characters, and that they were portrayed as intended. Regardless, both men come off as difficult to relate to, which I imagine didn’t help the movie with general audiences.
The first thing I noticed upon re-watching Death to Smoochy is how deliberately shot and colorful it is: every sequence is meticulously planned for blocking and color, certainly more-so than you would expect from a comedic film like this. Part of this was undoubtedly DeVito’s vision for the film, but the commentary included on the DVD reveals that cinematographer Anastas Michos had more than a little bit of influence on each individual shot.
Overall, this was niche movie made with a mass appeal budget. In general, dark comedies won’t fly with the movie-going masses, which was an error with the very inception of the picture. That said, the people with whom the movie resonates absolutely delight in it, and time has certainly shown favorably on the film, making it a bit of a cult classic.
If you like dark comedies or enjoy Danny DeVito’s other directorial efforts, then this is a must-see flick. The humor is very dark, which turned many away from it, but if you go in knowing what to expect, then you are far more likely to enjoy it for what it is.