'Death To Smoochy' at 20: The cult movie hiding Robin Williams most underrated performance
Odds are, Danny DeVito’s black comedy Death To Smoochy didn’t land on your radar when it was released 20 years ago this week, and if it did, its appearance was fleeting.
Written by Adam Resnick — a comedy writer famed for his work on counter-culture monoliths The Late Show With David Letterman and The Larry Sanders Show — this sly satire of children’s television and the corrupt world lurking behind its colourful scenery, is regarded as one of the most notable box office bombs of the early noughties.
In it, Robin Williams gets a rare chance to flex his villainous chops as ‘Rainbow’ Randolph, a disgraced kids presenter who’s ousted and replaced by Edward Norton’s goodie-two-shoes children’s show purist Sheldon Mopes and his Barney-esque purple rhino alter-ego, Smoochy.
Throughout its 116 minutes, we watch as Randolph tries his best to reclaim his beloved hosting gig while Resnick employs bags of dark humour (Nazis, guns, penis-shaped cookies), to highlight the ruthless corporate greed that fuels this seemingly innocent-looking industry.
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Boasting appearances from Williams, Norton, Catherine Keener and DeVito himself, the movie was eyed as a sure-fire-hit that’d help launch Film4’s movie slate following a co-producing partnership with Warner Bros — but things didn’t exactly go to plan.
Instead, Death To Smoochy pretty much tanked the UK studio’s film production arm, grossing just $8m against its $50m budget and earning Williams a Worst Supporting Actor nod from that year’s Razzies — an award he ultimately lost to Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones.
To make matters worse, critics pulled it apart, with leading movie boffin Roger Ebert declaring that “to make a film this awful, you have to have enormous confidence.”
In fact, even DeVito was forced to eventually throw up his hands and admit defeat regarding its reception from audiences, saying “It was a great experience… all the way up until Warner Bros released it.”
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However despite this prevailing narrative surrounding the movie’s legacy, a quick “Death To Smoochy” Google search tells a different story. As DeVito’s film celebrates its 20th birthday, it’s clear that it wasn’t as terrible as critics would have you believe — rather, it just needed a little time to find its crowd.
Let’s start with Rotten Tomatoes. As of March 2022, the movie has a paltry 46% approval from critics, but a warmer 66% rating from audiences. Interesting but perhaps not groundbreaking, until you take into consideration the number of people behind each of these statistics.
Look closer and you’ll see Smoochy’s 46% grade was decided by just 119 publication-led critic reviews, while its 66% praise is supported by (wait for it) a whopping 50,000+ viewer critiques.
Even more interesting is the movie’s ratings on Prime Video. Despite initially being written-off as a two-star effort after its 2002 release, 2022 viewers list Death To Smoochy as a solid 4.4 out of five star movie, with 192 five star ratings wildly outweighing its 13 ratings listed as two stars or lower.
What’s more, a deeper inspection not only reveals an audience fondness for the movie and its characters but an appreciation for its stars’ playing against type, particularly from a pained Williams who many believe delivered the most underrated performance of his career — especially framed against the tragic circumstances of his 2014 suicide.
“Absolutely hilarious. This comedy gem is one of Robin Williams best comedic performances and one of his most underrated films… a cult comedy classic,” gushed one Prime viewer. “I love this movie and I wish more people would check it out,” said another.
Meanwhile, Rotten Tomatoes’ audience reviews are equally glowing: “[‘Rainbow’ Randolph’s] suicidal attempts… manipulative tendencies… and his lack of impulse control show a sort of personality rarely seen on the big screen but almost everyone knows someone like that in real life.”
One viewer even went so far as to suggest that Death To Smoochy was simply: “too real for some people,” with another recommending that audiences “pay attention to the many nuances” from its actors, echoing the fact that “Robin Williams was a genius and this may be his most underrated performance.”
Undoubtedly heightened by Williams’ untimely death and the dark parallels between that event and his unusually dark performance as ‘Rainbow’ Randolph, perhaps Death To Smoochy finding its tribe later in life is a great lesson in not putting too much stock on opening weekend ‘hot takes’ and box office receipts.
Maybe some films need more time to settle into their own groove and meet audiences on their own terms — and when you look at the maths surrounding this movie’s reviews, it doesn’t take an education-loving purple rhino to help you understand that the audience love for it clearly overshadows any two-decade old negative press.
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Death To Smoochy is available on VOD.
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