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.”

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.

Sholom Aleichem called his novel of the Yiddish theater Wandering Stars. Such were the Bursteins, shuttling between the U.S. and Israel, twins in tow, with frequent tours through the Jewish enclaves of South America. As the Yiddish stage shrank, their peregrinations expanded. The Komediant is as packed with incident, personality, and family drama as A Shtetl Wedding. Susan regards her childhood as a disaster and fled the family business as soon as she could; Michael went on to become a solo star, both in Israel and on Broadway. Goldfinger interviews them—and their tireless octogenarian mother—separately to resonant Rashomon effect.

The resilient Bursteins are always likeable, sometimes in spite of themselves. Adding to the historical pathos, the filmmakers recruit a chorus of ageless Yiddish stage veterans, including Shifra Lerer and Fyvush Finkel. At one point, the expansive Finkel illustrates a point about the Yiddish audience with an Anne Frank joke. Actually, it’s a joke about the representation of Anne Frank, but—who knows?—it might be sufficient to get The Komediant denounced by Menachem Rosensaft and picketed by Dov Hikind.

A more genteel family saga, Olivier Assayas’s Les Destinées is an impressively coordinated enterprise that lasts three hours, manages a large cast, and covers a period of 30-odd years while successfully unfolding as a series of scenes from the life of a single character. Indeed, given the restrained force of Charles Berling’s performance, the movie could almost exchange titles with The Komediant.

Adapted from a three-volume novel by Jacques Chardonne, Les Destinées is unlike anything Assayas has previously done; no less than its protagonist, it’s eminently, if ambivalently, respectable. Jean (Berling), a Protestant pastor whose family operates a Limoges porcelain factory, divorces his wife, Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), because he suspects her of infidelity. Abandoning his calling, he relocates to Switzerland with a younger Protestant woman (a finely modulated Emmanuelle Béart) but cannot avoid his fate—leaving his Alpine paradise for Limoges to betray his youthful ideals and take the family business into the 20th century.

Shot by Eric Gautier, Les Destinées feasts on the dappled landscapes of the old France. For the first hour, the sun shines every day and Assayas often overexposes scenes so that his characters seem dazed by the light. The movie is naturalistically steeped in commerce (although Jean’s attachment to the fine, hand-painted porcelain in the face of cheap mass-production might reflect Assayas’s sense of France’s anachronistic cinéma des auteurs). Assayas keeps his camera close and moving; the narrative proceeds by sudden leaps. A long, detailed ball staged early in the film ranks with the choreographed teen bacchanal in Cold Water and the claustrophobic dinner party in Irma Vep. News of the epoch-ending World War I reaches factory and garden like a natural disaster.

By the time Les Destinées reaches its graceful conclusion, most of the surviving characters can no longer remember who they once were. The movie has a quiet gravity. You may not feel the earth move when Jean drifts off, imagining himself back in the garden, but you can sense it turn.