The movie that killed FilmFour

Robin Williams seeks revenge on a purple rhino. How could anyone - including Ryan Gilbey - have thought that was a good idea?
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Sitting down to review Danny DeVito's black comedy Death to Smoochy in 2002, I started with this line: "Few films can please all the people all the time. But Death to Smoochy surely has a better chance than most." All I will say now, nearly two years later, is this: should I give you a tip regarding the 3.10 at Newmarket, just ignore me. Walk away.

Death to Smoochy pleased a handful of people, most of whom were members of Mr DeVito's immediate family. It's not a bad film, not by a long chalk: full of unrestrained imagination and wilful bad taste. But it has become an emblem for disaster, a bad-luck symbol so resonant that perhaps it shouldn't even be referred to by its title. Let's call it instead "the Smoochy film". Or "the movie that did for FilmFour". The company put up $5m of the $55m budget, but to date the picture has grossed scarcely more than $8m. Posters had been dispatched to multiplexes, but the UK release was abandoned. Death to Smoochy had received the last rites. It has now been released on DVD and video, where it will doubtless provide a bizarre evening for anyone whose first, second and third choices had been rented out.

There were several movies that helped end the production division of FilmFour. At the time of its closure, at the end of 2002, the company badly needed a hit. Pickings had been slim in the three years since its last smash, East Is East, and money was being guzzled by ill-advised projects. Two of the most notable failures were hamstrung by a determination to play it safe, to court the international buck. Charlotte Gray was an insipid film of a soapy novel, though it might look serviceable on television one Bank Holiday afternoon. Lucky Break was The Full Monty in convict's clothes: a prison comedy with a steel ball chained to its ankle.

Unlike those pictures, Death to Smoochy could not be labelled safe, even by its detractors. The script, by Adam Resnick, a screenwriter whose poison pen had served on Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show, imagined a revenge campaign waged by a disgraced children's entertainer on the pudgy purple rhino that had replaced him. DeVito assembled a crack cast - Edward Norton as the wholesome star behind Smoochy the Rhino, Catherine Keener as the ice-pick-sharp executive who nurtures him and, best of all, Robin Williams as Rainbow Randolph, the bilious TV showman nabbed accepting cash from parents wanting their little darlings to sit up-front in the audience.

The role came at a good time for Williams. He was "looking for something dark." He got it that year. His toxic sidewalk dance in Death to Smoochy may be the most inspired scene he has ever played. The shock of seeing this perpetual sentimentalist shake off his cosy persona and cuss with gusto almost excused the indulgences of his 24-year movie career. In the same year, he was also a murderer (in Insomnia) and a sexually dysfunctional stalker (in One Hour Photo). Goodbye forever, it seems, Patch Adams.

Death to Smoochy has a lot going for it. Resnick's one-liners exude a hard-boiled lyricism worthy of Mamet - "Allow me to untangle this web of shit," offers a showbiz agent who later promises that his client will be "pissing on $100 bills just to see the look on Franklin's face", and describes the fictional People of Hope Foundation as "the roughest of all the charities." Resnick also penned some acidic lyrics for Smoochy's PC singalong "My Stepdad's Not Mean (He's Just Adjusting)".

But the writing could also sound threadbare - Smoochy is described as "a piggy bank with a horn," children are "wallets with pig-tails," Sheldon is "a bottle of pancake syrup with legs." Even the most gleefully nasty segments of the picture, which detail Randolph's descent into madness, are predicated on the notion that controversy makes a performer unbankable, when in fact the opposite is often true, as DeVito himself should have spotted. He was, after all, one of the first directors to offer gainful employment to a real-life, post-scandal children's entertainer, Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman), who had a small role in Matilda.

The biggest problem for Death to Smoochy, though, was that it presented its audience with shot after shot of undiluted misanthropy topped off with a last-minute chaser of syrup. Harold Ramis, who made Groundhog Day and Analyze This, was at one point in line to direct, and claims to have seen a draft of the script that did not have a happy ending, or a reconciliation between the main characters. But I don't think it's this final capitulation to Hollywood convention that made Death to Smoochy the disaster that it was. Simply put, it was uncommercial from start to finish - which might make it foolhardy or suicidal. Critics were divided. Even those who liked it seemed to fear for it. J Hoberman of the Village Voice observed that, "the film has the distinction of being made for no discernible demographic." The New Yorker, which savaged it, advised that the actors involved should remove it from their CVs at the earliest opportunity.

Perhaps no movie in which the most obvious merchandising opportunity is for phallus-shaped cookies could ever succeed on a scale broad enough to justify a budget in the upper eight-figures. But its commercial failure, the hostility it attracted, and its reputation now as one of the movies that sank FilmFour, speaks only of the trepidation that is rife in filmmaking. Channel Four seems to have done the right thing, financially speaking, in axing its film division: the company is back in the black. And FilmFour still exists, as a cable and digital channel, though the brand's currency has fallen. Now it screens international classics, sometimes in the correct ratio, and hosts never-ending seasons of gangster movies. Where else can you find films as obscure as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, or the work of Quentin Tarantino, showing night after interminable night?

'Death to Smoochy' is available on Pathé DVD and Video