LOS ANGELES, March 27 (UPI) -- "Death to Smoochy" resembles a foul-mouthed, R-rated episode of "The Simpsons," one in which Krusty the Klown would be fired for extorting payola from doting parents for featuring their children on his show. Dorky Ned Flanders would replace him and become a huge hit as "Smoochy," a Barney-like singing rhinoceros. Crapulous Krusty would plot to destroy nice Ned, while everyone else in children's television would conspire to corrupt him.
Robin Williams fills the Krusty role, but converts the lovable old Yiddish showbiz shlub into a tightly wound homicidal degenerate named Rainbow Randolph Smiley (a vicious parody of his own "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Birdcage" roles). I'd allow Pee-Wee Herman to take my kids to the movies before I'd let Rainbow Randolph spend 30 seconds alone with them.
Edward Norton ("Fight Club") transforms Ned Flander's born-again Christian into a New Agey post-Puritan do-gooder hero. "When we were little and my brothers played cowboys and Indians," he explains, "I was always the Chinese railroad worker." As Smoochy, he leads the children on his show in singing, "My Stepdad's Not Mean (He's Just Adjusting)."
The ever-tasteful Danny DeVito ("Throw Mama from the Train") directs and also portrays Smoochy's crooked agent. Not surprisingly, the movie is filled with Sicilian-style suggestions about precisely where various improbable objects should be inserted and how many twists they should be given.
Like DeVito's "The War of the Roses," this is a dark comedy. Screenwriter Adam Resnick specializes in satirizing the television industry, having written for David Letterman and "The Larry Sanders Show."
It's also one of the darkest comedies ever, literally. Comedies are traditionally overlit, but "Death to Smoochy" is strikingly underexposed, with rich, saturated colors.
The screening started poorly, with Williams & Co. winning practically no laughs from the packed theater. All these expert performers' comic timing seemed off. I eventually realized that the soundtrack was definitely out of sync with the picture. I told the projectionist, and by the time I returned, the movie had started to garner some big yucks.
That got me to wondering whether the scores of other critics at the screening would have sat passively through the entire glitched-up showing, then gone home and slammed "Death to Smoochy" for not being funny. Probably. Movie reviewers seem notable primarily for an ability to make unshakable snap judgments.
This reminded me of the notorious screening of a sequel to Charles Bronson's "Death Wish," where the projectionist put the third reel on before the second, causing a character to pop back to life who had just been decapitated. All the critics slammed the film for its incoherent plot. Granted, it was a rotten movie anyway, but it always amused me that in their rush to condemn, few critics noticed the obvious projection error.
Even with everything working right, though, "Death to Smoochy" isn't as good as that fictitious "Simpsons" episode would be. Krusty is simply a richer, more appealing character than William's motormouth sicko.
And while Ned Flanders is as fervently benevolent as Norton's Smoochy, his insufferably perky mannerisms -- "Howdily-doodily, neighboreeno!" -- are a lot funnier than Norton's habit of promoting vegetarianism to all the carnivores around him.
Further, the movie tends toward repetition and overkill. Sure, it's fun to expose people in children's television as venal careerists, but to go on to make them murderous mobsters is to lose that contact with reality that's essential to effective satire. Still, while it's not as hilarious as all the talent would imply, "Death to Smoochy" will appeal to those who like their comedies nasty.
What little experience I've had with the business was the complete opposite. Everyone was extremely polite. It was like trying to do business in Japan. Nobody would ever flat out say, "No. I hate it. Go away. You stink." The animated sit-com I wrote for spent three years in a limbo of postponements, with nobody ever being willing to officially put it out of its misery. (It's now showing on a different network.)
That's because nobody knows what kids are going to decide they like next. Back before I had children, I'd watch this show that scanned the world for the worst in foreign television. The all-time low was this weird Japanese stinker featuring color-coded kung fu fighters in motorcycle helmets battling the phoniest monsters since "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster." Ha-ha! Those wacky Japanese! Little did I know that within a few years I'd be shelling out to buy my nagging kids their own "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers" crud.
People in the children's TV business may enjoy the maliciousness of the "Smoochy" characters as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for how'd they like to behave. In reality, none of them can afford to permanently burn their bridges with anybody else, because the apparently talentless geek wasting your time today might be the king of Kid TV tomorrow.
Rated "R" primarily for filthy language.