Williams sheds his 'cute' side

Critics and audiences don't disagree on everything, but when it comes to Robin Williams, the battle lines seem to be drawn. Reviewers pan the daylights out of pictures such as "Patch Adams" and "Hook," and moviegoers just as eagerly line up for them.

Well, the hour of reckoning is here.

"Death to Smoochy" has arrived, bringing a Williams we've never seen before, and some of his fans may never want to see again.

What irks many critics about Williams is exactly what other moviegoers seem to love: his endless need to seem cute and charming, often way beyond the demands of the character he's playing.

Even when he tries to stretch his range in a picture like "Bicentennial Man," in which he plays a docile robot, that "please-please-love-me" glint never quite leaves his relentlessly adorable eyes.

Has he finally had enough of his own sweetness? That's one way to explain his "Smoochy" character, a foul-mouthed clown hearkening back less to "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Good Will Hunting" than to his early days as a manic comedian with a shamelessly over-the-top style.

Williams plays Rainbow Randolph, a TV clown with a top-rated children's show. He gets busted for selling guest spots to parents who want their kids in front of the camera, and the show's producers want a squeaky-clean new performer to replace him.

They choose Sheldon Mopes, a straight-arrow entertainer whose kid-friendly alter ego is Smoochy, a guitar-playing rhinoceros. Desperate and demented, Rainbow Randolph vows revenge on the pink-skinned jester who's deposed him.

And this isn't all Smoochy has to worry about. He's honest to his bones, but every day brings new onslaughts of greed, corruption, and violence from the world of kids' TV, plus various charities that have their fingers in the till.

Can he keep his integrity – not to mention his safety and sanity – while dodging the threats and schemes cascading down on him?

From that synopsis, you might not guess "Death to Smoochy" is a comedy. But it is, directed by no less a laugh-master than Danny DeVito, whose career has gravitated toward dark-toned humor as reliably as Williams's has veered in the opposite direction.

DeVito also plays Smoochy's agent, a sleazy character even by this movie's impressive standards.

Rounding out the cast are Edward Norton, close to perfect as Smoochy, and Catherine Keener as a TV producer who's also a groupie for the kiddie acts she books.

Whatever moviegoers make of it this weekend, "Death to Smoochy" marks a fascinating career step for Williams, who leaves behind his finely tuned glibness to play Rainbow Randolph with a ferocity I never expected.

It's also an impressive achievement for DeVito, who turns Adam Resnick's hyperbolically cynical screenplay into a kinetic cartoon full of brain-spinning images and eye-jolting colors.

It's not a particularly original film – directors as different as Charlie Chaplin, Mel Brooks, and Terry Gilliam have paved the way for it – but its imagination rarely flags, and its energy never does.

Stay away if you treasure the beguiling image Williams has cultivated for the past two decades. And whatever you do, don't bring the kids! But if you're in the mood for razor-sharp satire, this is the most refreshingly outrageous movie of the season.

• Rated R; contains violence, sexual dialogue, and very foul language.

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