To begin, we must consider Randolph Smiley (Williams), the fiftyish imp (or troll) who's basically Captain Kangaroo on jet fuel. Ridiculously wealthy from his tenure on the top-rated Rainbow Randolph show, Randolph and his merry band of vertically challenged extras delight brainwashed, sugar-comatose kiddies with anthems such as "Friends Come in All Sizes," innocently crooning, "Some like to toss while others to catch, one might say 'grass' while the other says 'snatch.'" (Here's hoping I misheard that.) It's a pleasure -- and a relief -- to announce that Williams is back in prime form in the role he plays best: the unrestrained id.
In the opposite corner, we have a profoundly exaggerated personification of the superego, maliciously milked for mean yuks by screenwriter Adam Resnick (director of the happily freakish Cabin Boy). Folksinger Sheldon Mopes (Norton) is everything Randolph is not: compassionate, genuine, and socially proactive. Thus, he's broke. He's also no slouch, sporting the homemade costume of his rhinocerine alter ego, Smoochy, and booking his own gigs in settings such as a Coney Island methadone clinic. When producer Merv Green (Harvey Fierstein) and the corporate crud of the Kidnet network finger Sheldon as a naive, substance- and felony-free patsy to fill the time slot of the fallen Randolph, the lone innocent enters the machine, with fairly predictable but enjoyably ticklish results.
Smoochy trades heavily on the concept that everyone in the entertainment industry is a monster (Resnick cut his teeth writing for Late Night With David Letterman and The Larry Sanders Show), but fortunately, it doesn't stop at traditional backstabbing and gluttony. Perhaps sensing that contemporary audiences are shrewd and not consistently fascinated by movies about showbiz types, Resnick has crafted an ambitious if extremely uneven character study. Randolph isn't just jealous, he's delightfully venomous; and Sheldon, whose crunchy granola philosophies could have made him a mega-wuss, ardently demands that Kidnet accommodate his progressive ideals. This tension works, even as some sequences (a tired Nazi rally, a dutiful mob subplot) tend to meander.
It's possible that part of the film's raison d'être is to poke cruel fun at a popular purple dinosaur -- there seem to be a few teensy parallels to, what's his name, Barney or something? -- but it's in the nitty-gritty of the network power struggles that the movie really cooks. Kidnet's senior programming executive, Nora Wells (the ever-keener Catherine Keener), first recruits Sheldon from squalor, then finds herself battling him over merchandising and lyrical content. Against all odds -- and a sea of pet names including "little booger-eater" and the endearing "fuckin' jizzbag" -- Nora and Sheldon discover there's actually more to human relationships than the cold, vicious bickering that makes one crave death.
DeVito (Throw Momma From the Train, The War of the Roses) has an incredible knack for the material, and it's his ability to balance the toxic goofball heart of American television with complicated adult conflicts -- particularly revenge -- that brings Resnick's script to life. It's creepy and fascinating to look into the multiple layers of hypocrisy and abuse behind successful children's programming, and weirder still to note the pollution of a childlike world into a mature one, and vice versa (emphasis on vice). With cinematographer Anastas Michos (Man on the Moon), DeVito transforms simple lewdness into grand delirium in hilariously heated dialogue and some wonderfully strange grand-scale set pieces.
Despite all the color and frenetic energy, however, a big, weird movie demands big, weird personae, and this cast is up to the task. Keener and Williams are both spot-on, and although Norton is a bit pallid at first (he looks exhausted), he soon enough earns Smoochy's horns and songs. (Smoochy engages the kids with a rendition of "My Stepdad's Not Mean [He's Just Adjusting]," which Norton co-wrote with Resnick; Trey Parker had better watch out.) As talent (and double) agent Burke Bennett, DeVito is ideal, and Jon Stewart and Vincent Schiavelli are both employed to good bad ends. All involved knowingly serve a narrative that's hell-bent on obliterating the precious icons that keep our pop culture from growing up. Death to Smoochy, indeed.