The Misunderstood: Death to Smoochy

The Misunderstood: Death to Smoochy

I'll be the first to admit that I have questionable taste in movies. I prefer the strange, the oblique and the victims of the 5-percent rule. You know the one, those films that only 5-percent of the audience even knows how to love. This is not to claim I'm any more astute a movie watcher or that I have a more developed sense of humor, just that my taste buds perk at a peculiar set of qualities most people can't stand. To follow that analogy, selling the 2002 dark comedy Death to Smoochy to a traditional moviegoing audience was like trying to market Marmite to the American palate. Despite sporting an all-star cast made up of equal parts A-list and indie darlings, Death to Smoochy tanked in the worst way possible. It was released at over 2000 theaters across America and only managed to pull in a little over $8 million by the time it was kicked from every major cineplex in the nation. To put that in perspective, in the same year it took in less money all together than the opening weekends of such illustrious projects as Rollerball and The Master of Disguise. Death to Smoochy has since developed something of a cult following, but it's an ashamed cult if anything. I think its horrible showing and subsequent reputation have more to do with the era in which it was released than any inherent badness. As much as I hate to harp on something like 9/11, anyone who remembers that period of time remembers just how difficult it was to make people laugh, or to even find people who were willing to laugh. It was a time when America temporarily lost its sense of humor, a condition I believe persisted until 2003 when Team America: World Police came out and made it OK to laugh about terrorism and American imperialism. Releasing a brutal, misanthropic comedy like Death to Smoochy in that social climate was a recipe for failure. These days, Americans have a much deeper appreciation for comic brutality. We've made blockbusters of horrific spectacles like the remake of Dawn of the Dead (rightly so) and the success of Judd Apatow's crew has proved that whimsy can mix with adult themes without turning the audience off. To its credit, Death to Smoochy is based on a hilarious, novel premise. The idea that children's programming is run by criminal organizations who make stars of degenerates is at least chuckle worthy. It's that level of raunch and surreal social upending that allows a guy like Robin Williams to shine. Given too much space and little context he can become more than a little grating, but place him in a weird role like Rainbow Randolph and he flourishes. But what really sells Death to Smoochy, at least to appreciators like me, is the dedication of Edward Norton's performance. Norton is, to put it lightly, an eclectic sort of actor. Still, he's aware of the presence he brings to a character. You can't spend the better part of your career playing psychopaths and neo-nazis, then come to a role like Sheldon Meeks without carrying some heavy subtext. Norton is the perfect guy for this role without a doubt. His wide-eyed innocent is just creepy enough to make his darker tendencies believable instead of campy. He should have at least received a nod from one of the awards shows for his comic performance, but all Death to Smoochy got that year was a Razzie for Robin Williams. I want to encourage you readers to give Death to Smoochy a chance. It deserves a better reputation than just a calamitous flop from the early 00's.