Scrooged (1988) – Directed by Richard Donner – Starring Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, Bobcat Goldthwait, Carol Kane, David Johansen, Robert Mitchum, Alfre Woodard, John Glover, Jamie Farr, Buddy Hackett, and Brian Doyle Murray.
There are lots of adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but none of them scream the 1980s as loud as SCROOGED. Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, Bobcat Goldthwait, the Buster Poindexter guy, and the Solid Gold dancers all had a big decade, and they all come together in a rather entertaining comedy about a TV executive producing a live Christmas Carol broadcast who simultaneously has a Christmas Carol experience himself.
Frank Cross (Murray) is a complete dick, and runs his network like his own personal kingdom, despite the fact that it’s Robert Mitchum’s kingdom. He hates Christmas, hates subordinates, and hates himself. He drinks a lot and insults and bullies everyone he comes across. What’s nice about Murray playing the Scrooge character is his relative youth. Frank Cross isn’t a man at the end of his life, but in the middle of it. Ebeneezer not only knows he’s a jerk, but has suffered a lifetime of becoming increasingly miserable and isolated so his pump has been primed for a change. Cross is half his life from that moment; even though he’s been separated from his One True Love, Claire (Karen Allen), Frank is still a man climbing the social and economic ladder.
Despite being set in the present and despite not using the names of the Dickens’ characters, SCROOGED follows the general pattern of A Christmas Carol pretty closely – Frank is visited by a ghost of an ex-collegae, Lew (Forsythe), who warns him that three ghosts will visit him this night. The Ghosts come in expected order, and Frank is . The Ghost of Christmas Past (Johansen) is an incredible boor and cloaks himself in the garb of a taxi driver. (Not THE Taxi Driver, but a taxi driver.) As much as I dislike this character, the decision to start Frank off with a gruff ghost is a good one, as Frank needs someone who’s totally self-assured and doesn’t depend on him for anything. That’s the Ghost of Christmas Past – unshaven, bad teeth, cackling laugh … this is nearly as far out of Frank’s comfort zone as you can get. The connection between Past and Frank’s early days is pretty clear; Past represents the working class life Frank left behind. They witness Frank’s dad (Brian Doyle Murray) giving him a cut of meat for Christmas and while the ghost is appalled, Frank defends his father’s act as a good lesson.
There’s always a lot of weight placed on the Christmas Past ghost, as his visitation creates the back story for Scrooge. Past shows Frank his childhood, his early days as a low-level employee at the TV network’s Christmas party, happy times with Claire, and their eventual break-up, when Frank chooses his career (a dinner date with his boss, Lew) over dinner with their friends. Claire is heartbroken, but Frank is too career-obsessed to care. That they have this chat as Frank is in costume, playing Frisbee the Dog on a kid’s show, only serves to enforce the disconnect between Frank and Claire. It’s an absurd moment but it’s played perfectly straight by Allen and Murray.
And let’s just stop here for a moment to appreciate how awesome Karen Allen is as an actress. She’s plays off Murray as effortlessly and perfectly here as she does with Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Peter Reigert in Animal House, and Jeff Bridges in Starman. (Though, admittedly, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen that last one – feel free to call me out if I’m off-base.) All four of those actors require a different set of skills from Allen, and she usually only has a small amount of scenes to put those skills into action.
Christmas Past is followed by Christmas Present (Carol Kane), who continually smacks Frank around. She takes Frank to visit his brother James (John Murray), replacing the traditional role of nephew. The result plays the same, however; his brother laments Frank’s absence from his life and gets a trivia question about Gilligan’s Island wrong as Frank watches in disgust. (Not enough people give Dickens credit for his influence on Sherwood Schwartz sitcoms.) We also get a visit to his assistant Grace’s (Alfre Woodward) house, where he discovers that Grace has a kid who hasn’t talked since his father died.
Back to the network studio and we see Frank awaiting the visit of the third ghost as the live broadcast of A Christmas Carol (with Buddy Hackett as Scrooge) begins. Christmas Future gets only a quick appearance, sticking around just long enough to show Frank Grace’s mute son holed up in a mental institution and his own funeral.
Frank decides to change and his born again sequence is one of the greats. Murray plays it as much like a man coming off the rails as a man with a new focus in his life, really doing an outstanding job of walking that thin line between inspired and insane. He interrupts the live broadcast of A Christmas Carol to deliver a heart-felt plea for people to connect with their families. It’s a really great, really fresh version of the story, and Murray is completely convincing as a man unburdened by the weight he wouldn’t even admit he was carrying.
There’s plenty of great supporting work turned in by Bobcat Goldthwait, Robert Mitchum, and John Glover, yet for all of this, SCROOGED is merely a good movie and not a great one. One of the reasons why Scrooge is such a great character is because he is at the end of his life. He’s old, isolated, and bitter, and his trip with the ghosts reveals a man who’s life has gone wrong, and whose conversion speaks to the idea that it’s never too late to change. Frank Cross, on the other hand, is an unlikable lout in the middle of his life’s journey, drunk with power and not yet isolated from the world, and as great as Murray is, his descents into weepy territory don’t carry any weight to it. I’m not sure whether to laugh at the absurdity of his waterworks or feel empathy for his realizations.
I like SCROOGED but this was the first time I’d ever watched the entire movie in one piece; I enjoyed Donner’s film but I can’t say I feel any remorse at not having watched it previous to now. It’s a good movie but it’s ultimately a diversion rather than a film that sticks with me.
Be sure to check out the Holiday Review Index for all the Holiday-themed reviews to be found at Atomic Anxiety.