Dir: Danny DeVito. US. 2002. 109 mins.

A dark, subversive comedy enthusiastically realised by some big-name Hollywood talents - most notably Robin Williams, for whom it is the first of three big-screen comeback projects - Death To Smoochy takes an amusing premise and flogs it well beyond the point of expiration. US audiences have given this dark comedy a chilly reception - it opened to $4.3m from 1,980 - but international audiences may be more responsive to the film's gleefully cynical take on the warm and fuzzy world of children's TV. The reception, however, is probably not enough to turn this second joint venture between Warner Bros and the UK's FilmFour (the first was Charlotte Gray) into a significant money-maker.

The premise for Death To Smoochy isn't particularly original, echoing as it does any number of late-night TV comedy bits about Barney the purple dinosaur and his ilk. Williams' Rainbow Randolph is the king of kiddie TV, a jaded hack who, in cahoots with his network bosses, greedily exploits the affections of his pre-school viewers. Randolph's reign ends abruptly when he is caught taking cash from parents who are prepared to buy their childrens' way into the show. The network suits, eager to find a new star with a squeaky clean record, give Randolph's slot to Sheldon Mopes (Norton), a tofu-munching guitar-strummer who insists on the absolute integrity of his Smoochy the Rhino character. Desperate to regain his status and wealth, Randolph, aided by some of the shady characters that rode with him on the Rainbow Randolph gravy train, embarks on a series of ever more extreme schemes to discredit Sheldon and kick him off the air.

The script, by Adam Resnick (best known for his TV work on The Larry Sanders Show and Late Night with David Letterman), spins the premise out to some effect for 40 minutes or so and delivers at least one hilarious scene as Sheldon/Smoochy attempts to entertain an audience of nodding dope fiends at a rundown rehab clinic. The joke eventually begins to wear thin, though, and the film comes to rely more and more on over-the-top set pieces (as when Randolph tricks Sheldon into playing at a neo-Nazi rally), rather lame recurring gags and the lazy expedient of kids TV guardians with foul mouths and minds to match.

The hard-edged comic tone recalls that of director (and performer) Danny DeVito's earlier hits The War Of The Roses and Throw Momma From The Train. But whereas those films used touches of pathos to make the humour seem even more brutally cutting, Death to Smoochy simply bludgeons its audience. A subplot about Sheldon's budding romance with network vice-president Nora (Keener, from Being John Malkovich) if anything undermines the comedy rather than sharpens it.

For Williams, the film marks a glaring departure from the sticky sentimentality of his most recent features - 1999's Bicentennial Man and Jakob The Liar - and a return to the edgy, manic comedy usually reserved for his stand-up act. The performance may delight the comic's hardcore fans but it feels overdone in the context of what might have been a more balanced ensemble piece. Norton, in one of his rare comedy outings, is more restrained and occasionally quite effective, but his relatively subtle approach is drowned out by the film's otherwise blaring manner.

Prod cos: Warner Bros, FilmFour, Senator Entertainment, Mad Chance.
Warner Bros
Int'l dist: Warner Int'l (except UK: Film Four; Ger terrs: Senator)
Prods: Andrew Lazar, Peter MacGregor-Scott
Co-prods: Jody Hedien, Doug Davison, Jill Besnoy
Scr: Adam Resnick
Cinematography: Anastas Michos
Ed: Jon Poll
Prod des: Howard Cummings
Music: David Newman
Main cast: Robin Williams, Edward Norton, CatherineKeener, Danny DeVito, Jon Stewart, Harvey Fierstein