Death to Smoochy

Starring:
  • Lots of Profanity!
  • Ed Norton in a Barney Suit
  • Robin Williams Recycling Jokes from "Good Morning Vietnam"

 

Directed by Louie De Palma
Desperately trying to rescue Whoopi from another lame political joke, Robin hops on the Oscar stage to reprise his performance of "Blame Canada."

Quiz Show Through the Looking Glass of Cabin Boy

Adam Resnick wrote the screenplay for Death to Smoochy, significant because he also authored and directed that 1994 essay on the detriments of being a "fancy lad," Cabin Boy. Cabin Boy exudes a particular dignity, if that's the word: Even when we see the edges of the pool in which it was filmed, it feels like an unvarnished vision, for better or worse. Cabin Boy envisions coming-of-age as embracing the pungency of masculinity, achieving a surrealist's view of the transition from boy to man. This is roughly the same theme as Chris Elliott's 1990 sitcom "Get a Life." There is something rather oddly profound in the image of man-boy Chris Peterson peddling his bicycle down suburban streets, gleefully tossing newspapers, not a care in the world. "Get a Life" and Cabin Boy are marked by the presence of low budgets—the world they inhabit is obviously, intentionally artificial. On "Get a Life," Chris Peterson lives comfortably in the womb of his parents, much of the humor deriving from his dad's insistence that he get a job and move out. Chris would wake up every day and declare that he was going to be in a musical or be a food inspector, which never worked out. The series begs a rather serious question: Why should he get a job, or a life, for that matter? The whole suburban world has been handed to him, it's not even real anyway, and because of his mom's insistent smothering, he's grown so dependent on her that cutting the cord might mean instant death for the both of them.

Instead he artificially plays out these fantasies of "growing up" and finding his own masculinity in a completely "safe" environment. For his generation, there's a lot of truth to that: "Coming-of-age" has become so overproduced and sterilized that it's no longer real. It's not the real world that's bizarre—it's the fake world constructed for him by his parents. So Chris Peterson invents these bizarre scenarios by which to safely play out his masculinity. As with Cabin Boy, sometimes these ideas take on mythological proportions. My favorite episode of "Get a Life" involved Chris' battle with a paper-delivery machine. The paper boys were threatened to be replaced by a machine, so Chris dresses up as a superhero (involving aluminum foil and duct tape). The machine goes haywire, tossing papers through windows (ala Modern Times), ending with Chris stopping the machine as it careens toward a baby carriage.

Elliott, intentionally or not, tapped into some basic truths about his generation, witness the article in Newsweek last month about "Adultolescents." Cabin Boy is genuinely theater of the absurd, not like those bland Sandler comedies. Cabin Boy expresses the absurdity of his generation's coming-of-age as a yearning for the "smelliness" of manhood—that the Gen X world has become so sterile that they've all become "fancy lads," their course in life directed by a set of materialistic social dictates, happiness measured by the quality of their iced cappuccino. I'm convinced that there's genius in this film: My favorite scene is the one in which Chris Elliott rides on top of his swimmer girlfriend (Melora Walters) like she's a pair of water skis—Trina herself is a "drifter," found, literally, drifting in the ocean while trying to swim around the world. Her cynicism toward the "fancy lad" gives way to love when the fancy lad is trained in the ways of the Kama Sutra by a six-armed Ann Magnuson, thus giving Trina a little direction in life as well. The result is this bizarrely profound statement about Generation X:

On the land at the "fancy lad" school, he would have lost his virginity to some clean, safe rich girl, married her, and lived an antiseptic life running a hotel in Hawaii. Instead, he rides the "Filthy Whore"—the name of their ship—gets hazed by Brian Doyle-Murphy, Ritch Brinkley, James Gammon, Brion James, and comes out as a new man. Plus, Cabin Boy brings you one of the best cameos in movie history: David Letterman asking Chris if he wants to buy a monkey.

Andy Richter appears as a dock boy who declares, "Captain says I'm dumb as a carp." The crew dances like "harem girls." Brian Doyle-Murphy says, "Jesus Christ in a dump truck." There's the half-man/half-shark, the ice monster who gets melted by coffee, and, of course, the tobacco spitting cupcake.

Cabin Boy is crude, but it's art—In it's own way, Cabin Boy finds fundamental truths about the confusing, cleansed existence of Generation X. That's more than I can say for 90% of "comedies" is see these days, and a whole hell of a lot more than I can say for any Adam Sandler movie.

Death to Smoochy, however, reveals that Adam Resnick needs to go back to the zero-budgets. He tries to create the same sort of surrealism by placing vile creatures in cute costumes, but it doesn't work because the humor is so obvious. His idea of comedy is to let the word "fuck" be sandwiched between two words it shouldn't be, like "squeaky fucking clean." We hear Robin Williams yell, "Rainbow Fucking Randolph" at least a dozen times. I won't say that I didn't laugh, like when Smoochy teaches the kids, through song, "My stepdad isn't mean, he's just adjusting." But neither Resnick or Devito measure these characters correctly. They neuter Catherine Keener by swiping her acerbic wit; John Stewart just talks about ratings; Robin Williams sells every line like a heart attack, but is reduced to recycling his own material from Good Morning, Vietnam.

As for Smoochy himself, Ed Norton is supposed to represent archetypal goodness. He loves children and health food—he's the anti Channel One, the "news" outfit that gives schools free televisions and VCRs in exchange for fifteen minutes of class time to deliver Skittles ads. Death to Smoochy wants to be a bizarre black comedic treatise on ethics, but it's so inconsistent with its characters that it doesn't achieve genuine conflict. The conflicts are all plot based, not character based, so the movie ends up trying to pack way too much plot into too small a space. This leaves us with montages that substitute for character development and set pieces that lack impact. The film wants to be a surreal Quiz Show—a Faustian portrait of greed in corporate America. But compare, say, the "Smoochy on Ice" scene to Ralph Fiennes' confession in his father's classroom in Quiz Show. Quiz Show is so complex and well-acted that the scene has weight; Death to Smoochy begs for laughter because it says "fuck" a lot. It all adds up to very little, and I would suggest to Adam Resnick that he get away from moralist essays (He also wrote the John Travolta/Lisa Kudrow dud Lucky Numbers about the Pennsylvania lotto scam) and get back into the surrealist world of "Get a Life," the world in which Chris Elliott's brain is mutated by a nuclear accident and he becomes a spelling genius, only to misspell "pants" at the big spelling bee.

The Pitch:
 
½ Quiz Show
Plus
 
½ Cabin Boy
Plus
 
½ "Teletubbies"
Equals
   
Death to Smoochy
See It For:

Smoochy's apprehension before performing at the last John Ashcroft fundraiser.