Houses of Mirth

The epitome of animated anti-cuteness, Tex Avery's Screwball Squirrel was a raucous rodent who began his career by mugging the cartoon's eye-batting li'l bunny-wunny narrator. The ascendant Screwy proved so gratingly obnoxious (and uncommercial) that, four outings later, Avery had him affectionately crushed to death by a big dumb bear named Lonesome Lenny. Typically, the squirrel's last act was to brandish a sign inscribed "Sad ending, isn't it?"

There's a kindred screwiness to Danny DeVito's Death to Smoochy—a dark and noisy comedy scripted by former Letterman and Larry Sanders writer Adam Resnick. The film has the distinction of being made for no discernible demographic. Who could be the audience for this impressively designed, unrelentingly foulmouthed, exuberantly mean-spirited, and increasingly violent send-up of kids' television? Death to Smoochy is often very funny, but what's even more remarkable is the integrity of DeVito's misanthropic vision.

Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) is the king of the Coco-Krispies set until he's busted by the FBI for taking bribes from stagestruck parents to put their kids on his show. The fabulously hostile Friendliest Friend on Earth, introduced cavorting before the camera with a gaggle of multicolored, bewigged dwarves, needs to be replaced by someone who is not only squeaky but squeaky- clean. Thus the show's acerbic producer, Nora (Catherine Keener), goes out to a Coney Island methadone clinic and recruits Smoochy (Edward Norton). Her description—"a bottle of pancake syrup with legs"—scarcely does him credit. Smoochy is a supremely self-righteous, soy-dog-chomping folksinger in a plush, pink rhinoceros suit with a fake twang and an anti-heroin version of "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain." Informed of his big break, he wants to know if the network is prepared to "commit to Smoochy quality."

Friendliest Friend of Earth (left) and big Capracornball
photo: Warner Bros.
Friendliest Friend of Earth (left) and big Capracornball


Death to Smoochy
Directed by Danny DeVito
Written by Adam Resnick
Warner Bros.

The Komediant
Directed by Arnon Goldfinger
Written by Oshra Schwartz New Yorker
Opens April 5

Les Destines
Directed by Olivier Assayas Written by Assayas and Jacques Fieschi, from the novel by Jacques Chardonne
Lincoln Plaza
Opens April 5

Remarkably, DeVito allows Norton to play Smoochy (and his human alter ego Sheldon Mopes) as a tiresome goody-goody for fully two-thirds of the movie. Up until Smoochy and Nora bond over their childhood attachment to Rickets the Hippo, Keener's nightmare Jean Arthur unceasingly insults Norton's big Capracornball by informing him that his job is selling sugar and plastic and his ideals mean less than the color of her nail polish. (In addition to everything else, Death to Smoochy is a Catherine Keener film—the actress extends her record of improving every project with the brains to cast her.)

Does the movie have a plot? Against all odds, Smoochy's Magic Jungle is a hit and the now homeless Randolph engages in a succession of nefarious schemes to defame his successor—setting him up as a Nazi dupe, which produces a frenzy of "anti-Smoochyism." (Note to the Jewish Museum: Smoochy makes his comeback wrapped in the American flag.) This Wile E. Coyote-Roadrunner routine is complicated by the other showbiz lowlifes working the Magic Jungle: DeVito's sparkplug agent, Harvey Fierstein's charity gangster, Pam Ferris's Irish mob queen, and Vincent Schiavelli's down-and-out former kiddie star Buggy Ding Dong, who introduces himself with apologies for smelling like piss.

Pee-Wee's Playhouse raised the kiddie show to the realm of conceptual (or at least neo-expressionist) art. More doggedly lowbrow, Death to Smoochy features the most hilariously designed telekitsch since Federico Fellini attacked the world of Silvio Berlusconi in Ginger and Fred. (Smoochy's political correctness adds a measure of idiotic pomposity to the shenanigans.) The richly saturated colors are borderline psychedelic; the musical numbers have an amphetamine snap. DeVito solves the Robin Williams problem by creating an environment so garish the actor's personality is tastefully muted by the decor—or rather, naturalized. Williams's rapid-fire id-speak sounds here like the sweet voice of reason. This is the first Williams performance I've enjoyed since Aladdin—and that was also a cartoon. (Plus, we repeatedly get to see him beaten up.)

Although the law of the Magic Jungle involves more than a few murders, DeVito and Resnick don't attach a political warning label to Smoochy's rise and fall and rise and fall and rise. Still, from the movie's opening routine through the cheerfully vulgar insistence on showbiz realpolitik to the fake romantic ending, DeVito has orchestrated a sustained Bronx cheer against E! world solipsism. Smoochy may not be positioned as a potential demagogue, but his granola ice-capades turn out to be a self-aggrandizing allegory—which is to say, another part of the racket. Although Smoochy declines to be a Looney Tunes analogue to A Face in the Crowd, it's not for nothing that the name "Sammy Glick" can be found in the credits.

Death to Smoochy indulges in its share of ethnic vaudeville, but connoisseurs of the real thing won't want to miss The Komediant—an Israeli documentary whose first word is the untranslatable Yiddish cry "Gevalt!"

Directed by Arnon Goldfinger, The Komediant (Yiddish for actor) is a linguistic stew with a zesty, homemade flavor that belies its carefully researched preparation. The movie is the story of the Polish-born song-and-dance man Pesach'ke Burstein (1896-1986), a virtuoso whistler whose hits include the Yiddish version of "Sonny Boy" and the never-to-be-forgotten "Odessa Mama." Burstein's evergreen play, A Shtetl Wedding, was one of the several Old World counterparts to The Jazz Singer in which a rabbi's son goes on the stage. The star himself came to the U.S. in the 1920s, married teenage Second Avenue ingenue Lillian Lux, and fathered twins—Susan and Michael—who almost immediately became part of the act.

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