When Sure Things Go Wrong
A movie is never more of a crushing disappointment than when you’ve gotten your hopes up, when against your better judgment you’ve bought into the hype and the advertising and the how-can-it-miss high concept. Imagine how sad the entire geek community is going to be if Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man sucks. (But it can’t suck, right? Right? I mean, it’s Sam Raimi. It’s Spider-Man. Please, whatever movie gods there are, don’t make it suck. Don’t do that to us.)
When you mix in a director who’s done kick-ass stuff before, well, the expectations get all the higher, and the fall of the crestfallen is from such a greater height. (Sam, c’mon: Darkman. Army of Darkness. A Simple Plan. Don’t do us wrong.) Sure, even Spielberg had his 1941. Even Hitchcock had his Family Plot. (Even Sam had his For Love of the Game. No, not going to think about that…) But that doesn’t make the sour taste of indignation any sweeter.
Throw Smoochy from the train
No, really. Throw Smoochy from the train. If ever a concept came handed down from the movie gods on a silver platter, this is it. If ever such a dependable concept was botched in execution, this is it. It had done my cold, bitter, cynical heart some good to know that, clearly, Barney the purple dinosaur in particular and the insipidness of children’s television in general had inspired rage in others besides me. And it gives my cold, bitter, cynical heart a twisted sort of smug satisfaction to learn once again that yup, the Hollywood Movie Machine knows how to screw up a sure thing.
If there’s one thing a black comedy needs, it’s a sense of the unrepentant, the unapologetic. You wanna kill Barney– er, Smoochy? Fine. We all do. So do it. Don’t make nice, don’t cringe, just pull the trigger. Don’t worry about frightening the children — they shouldn’t be watching an R-rated flick anyway — just do it for the grownups who are tired of the high-pitched singing and the awkward dancing and the foam-rubber suits. Gives us a little cathartic release before we have to go back to the real world and agree that Barney and the Teletubbies and whoever are harmless fun, good for kids, blah blah blah.
But Death to Smoochy doesn’t have the foam-rubber balls to do this, and that is its downfall. We should be cheering on those who have it in for Smoochy, but we can’t. The title of the film alone still gives me little chills of delight for what might have been — “death to Smoochy”; say it, it feels great: “death to Smoochy” — but that’s all I have to cling to, because the actual movie itself does not inspire me to wish death on Smoochy at all.
Danny DeVito (The Big Kahuna) directed Adam Resnick’s script here, and they so desperately want this to be about the, ha ha, cutthroat world of children’s television. I bet they’re counting reviews to see how many use that phrase, which is never actually uttered in the film but is just about flashed in subtitles throughout. Rainbow Randolph is the star of cable network KidNet, and Robin Williams (A.I. Artificial Intelligence), bless his black little heart, plays him like a demented Willy Wonka — okay, a more demented Willy Wonka — and not like the second coming of Patch Adams. But when a scandal overtakes Randolph, KidNet execs — played by Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich) and Jon Stewart (The Faculty), both of whom look uncomfortable — dump him and sign up the goofily hippie Sheldon Mopes and his character Smoochy, a fuchsia rhino who sings insipid songs. So Randolph, who thinks himself unfairly given the boot, wants revenge. And then there’s a deeply unfunny thing going on about the mobster types who rule kid TV — like the badly miscast Harvey Fierstein (Mulan) as the don of “the roughest of all the charities,” Parade of Hope, which builds kids’ cancer hospitals or something (It’s funny, see, the caring and the felonies going hand in hand). Sheldon won’t play along with his criminal/charitable ventures, so he’s on their hit list, too. Hence the whole “death to Smoochy” thing.
But if Death to Smoochy wants us to root for Randolph and Co., which it should, then Sheldon/Smoochy shouldn’t be so damned sympathetic. Edward Norton (Fight Club, American History X) makes Sheldon so cheerfully assured and confident that it’s easy to like him… especially when he’s fighting for things like speaking honestly to kids and not turning his show and his character into an advertisement for junky plastic toys and sugar water. Sheldon is a hero here, and black comedies don’t call for heroes. So the whole affair is scattershot, with some individual moments of hilarity that don’t add up to a cohesive whole, because no one involved seems to know what the point of the entire endeavor is supposed to be. With his hilarious Throw Momma from the Train, DeVito and his screenwriter understood that Momma needed to be absolutely horrific if we were to want her to get thrown from the train. If we’re to want Smoochy to die, he needs to be irredeemably awful. He ain’t. His movie just about is, though.
Mommy’s fight club
I’m not gonna blame David Fincher for the bland failure that is Panic Room, though maybe I should. His camera glides seductively around the fashionable New York brownstone that contains the title chamber, through ceilings and walls, into air ducts, through the handle of a tea kettle, with increasingly annoying desperation, as if this self-conscious stylishness were all he had to bring to the game. It probably is, though, about all he could do with an aggressively mediocre script from the aggressively mediocre David Koepp (Stir of Echoes, Snake Eyes). But then, why agree to the project at all?
Maybe he felt like I did: How could this go wrong? Jodie Foster — Clarice Starling herself, a confident gal who takes crap from no one — under siege by the guy who gave us such merciless mind-fucks as Fight Club and The Game and Seven. It’s like the immovable object meeting the irresistible force, or so you’d think. But they’re both, alas, locked in a box, locked in there by a concept that’s less appealing, less obviously a can’t-miss one, upon further examination, and it’s a box that’s unopenable except by cheating. And so we — and they — get cheated.
Meg Altman (Foster: Contact), spending her rich ex-husband’s money, buys a to- die- for house on a fashionable New York street, and moves in almost immediately with her teenage daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart). On their first night in the house, three men, believing the house to be still empty, break in, intent on stealing something very valuable. Fortunately for Meg, the house contains a “panic room,” a secure bunker just off the master bedroom. Unfortunately for Meg, once she and Sarah are locked in there, the burglars let her know that what they want is in that room.
Well, of course it is. There’d be no movie if they’d just nipped in for the good china before leaving Meg and Sarah in peace. But there isn’t much of a movie this way, either. Because it’s at this point when everyone involved seemed to think: “Oh, shit, we’ve got our protagonist cornered. What the hell do we do now?” And the answer is: Not much. Jodie and daughter sit in the room for a long time, not doing much but cowering, and a passive Jodie is no fun at all. So Koepp cheats to get Jodie to open that steel door — without giving too much away, he fails to stock this incredibly well-stocked panic room with the one vital thing Meg and Sarah need, even while it contains things no self-contained panic room should ever need, like a butane lighter. What, were they expecting to barbecue? But the lighter was necessary to Koepp’s machinations just as the lack of that other thing was, too. Bleech. I don’t like cheaters.
Fairly offensive, too, for what’s supposed to be a thriller, is that the bad guys inspire no emotion whatsoever, except aggravation — they’re clownish instead of menacing, even when they’re beating up and shooting one another. In ascending order of ineffectualness, they are: Burnham, played by the too-cuddly-here-to-be-threatening Forest Whitaker (Platoon); Junior, played by the too-absurd-to-be-threatening Jared Leto (American Psycho); and Raoul, played by the too-over-the-top-Scaryifying-to-be-threatening Dwight Yoakam (Sling Blade). I’m not trashing these guys as actors — they’re just given too little to work with.
Yes, it’s nice to see resourceful women onscreen — Jodie kicks ass, no question about it. But it would be nice to see her do so in a movie that treated her more like a character and less like a chess piece in a rigged game.