Saturday, April 5, 2014

Death to Smoochy


I telephoned Joseph, my manager, this morning, about my brilliant new idea, an ice skating spectacular version of Aida with me in the title role. Of course, I do not skate but I'm sure Michelle Kwan will leap at the chance to set my favorite tap routines in a new medium. (Joseph is to call her people.) I see the production as a true breakthrough with something for every demographic. I'll use selections from both the Verdi and the Elton John scores to bring in the high brow and the younger generation. Families will come for the spectacular production design. Sports fans will come for the athleticism (I hope to sign Scott Hamilton as Rhadames) and everyone will love to see me conquer in a new and exotic field of show business.

Joseph was thrilled with the idea and is putting together a production team to meet this next week and he called Madame Rose to come up with a publicity campaign. I suggested we videotape the whole production process and market it as an HBO series, Project GreenLester, gathering even more fans and buzz in that way. Madame Rose is calling Time-Warner-AOL first thing Monday morning to make the arrangements. In the meantime, I got out my little Sony hand held camcorder and filmed myself doing graceful pirouettes as I slid across the freshly waxed floor in my rehearsal studio.

After falling only two or three times, nurse Lynn stopped by and suggested we take in a film before I snapped a clavicle so off we went to our local Cineplex where we caught Danny DeVito's new film, Death to Smoochy. I thought it was some sort of drama about the end of sex as we know it, but Smoochy turned out to be a large fuchsia rhinoceros, sort of the bastard child of Barney the dinosaur and an extra large bottle of Pepto-Bismol.

Death to Smoochy is a black comedy set in the cynical world of children's television. There, at the national network Kidnet, the most popular performer is Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams), a dancing clown whose routines seem to have been dreamed up by someone who sat through the Oompa-loompa sequences of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory while ingesting multiple tabs of acid. Randolph is dethroned after being caught taking bribes to give some of his little tykes more camera time and Kidnet executives Frank (Jon Stewart in the worst Caesar haircut since Harrison Ford in Presumed Innocent) and Nora (Catherine Keener) have to come up with a replacement. Under fire from the board, they need to find an incorruptible clown and they settle on Sheldon Mopes (Ed Norton) and his alter-ego, a large pink rhinoceros named Smoochy. Mopes is a vegetarian do-gooder out to change the corrupt and cynical ways of children's entertainment, so his only regular gig is Friday nights at the Coney Island methadone clinic.

Frank and Nora make Smoochy a star, irking Randolph no end and Randolph decides to take Smoochy down. This sets in motion an overly complicated plot involving Irish mobsters, a demented boxer, an overweight Harvey Fierstein, ruthless children's charities, a clown named Buggy who's strung out on heroin and a finale that's a cross between The Manchurian Candidate and a Sonja Heine film. I did pick up one or two innovative staging ideas for Aida on Ice from this film, but my sets and costumes will be much more attractive.

Danny DeVito directs and plays a supporting role as Smoochy's ruthless agent. In tone, the piece is similar to his earlier black comedies, Throw Momma from the Train and The War of the Roses. It suffers from some of the same weaknesses as those earlier films; it never gets savage enough and tends to pull its punches in order for us to eventually have sympathy for what should be irredeemable characters. This sort of comedy, in order to work properly should cut close to the bone and DeVito always seems to stop in the subcutaneous fat. The screenplay, by Adam Resnick, doesn't help as it's overly busy and full of character inconsistencies. Stewart and Keener, especially, are given nothing but contradictions to play. Stewart copes by disappearing into the background. Keener, who's smarter than that, simply projects a fierce intelligence that resolutely ignores her character's implausibilities.

In the central roles, Ed Norton succeeds as the lovable Sheldon. He creates a true idealist and he even manages to sell such idiotic musical numbers as My stepdad's not bad, he's just adjusting with a certain amount of aplomb. There's an earnest sincerity about his style of performance that allows us to care about a walking pile of magenta fuzz. Robin Williams is the weak link. Williams is always at his most insufferable when not reigned in and channeled by a strong director. Here, DeVito lets him indulge in every bad habit he's conceived in all of his years of manic comedy and overgrown man-child roles. Not only that, he keeps breaking into musical numbers for no good reason. Williams is not untalented in that way but the complete disconnect from theme and plot left me scratching my head and asking 'what were they thinking'?

All in all, the film is a valiant effort in a difficult genre. It has some genuinely funny moments, it takes on a milieu that's been crying out for a good satirical comedy for years, and it has some pleasing performances by Norton and Keener. On the other hand, you have to put up with Williams and a certain over expansiveness of scale coupled with lapses in logic.

Dancing midgets. Penis cookie. Soy hot dogs with spirulina. Lady mobstress. Michael Rispoli playing Irish rather than Italian. Swastika banners. Gratuitous dance in the park. Dwarf show queen. Cow bell clanging. Pink rhino hats.

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