Scrooged (1988) / Comedy-Fantasy

MPAA rated: PG-13 for violence, language, and innuendo
Length: 101 min.

Cast: Bill Murray, Karen Allen, Alfre Woodard, Bobcat Goldthwait, John Glover, John Forsyth, David Johansen, Carol Kane, John Murray, Robert Mitchum, Michael J. Pollard, Mabel King
Small role: Brian Doyle Murray, Jamie Farr, Robert Goulet, Buddy Hackett, John Houseman, Lee Majors, Pat McCormick, Mary Lou Retton, Miles Davis, Paul Schaffer, Larry Carlton, David Sanborn, Solid Gold Dancers, Richard Donner
Director: Richard Donner
Screenplay: Mitch Glazer, Michael O'Donoghue (based very loosely on the novel, "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens)
Review published January 1, 2013

Scrooged 1988 Bill MurrayCharles Dickens' classic novel, "A Christmas Carol", provides the backbone, and the backstory, for this modern update.  It's become something of a cult classic for people to watch around Christmas time every year, though, like many holiday films, it's the good cheer and nostalgia that people bring to it that makes it seem like a good film, as it is just barely passable entertainment by most regards.

Bill Murray (Ghostbusters, Tootsie) stars as Frank Cross, an unscrupulous and uncaring TV executive who doesn't care about anyone or anything but his own success at getting big ratings for his TV station.  His latest project is a live production of the Dickens work, which he has falsely promoted by scaring the crap out of people with scenes of disaster in the promo ads telling them, essentially, that they must watch.  Cross's poor treatment of not only his employees, but also his ex-girlfriend Claire (Allen, Starman), his family (he gets them corporate swag as gifts for Christmas and doesn't attend their parties), and pretty much everyone else (he cons an old woman carrying lots of packages out of a cab), sees him living out "A Christmas Carol" on his own, as he is visited by the infamous Three Ghosts.  The Ghosts have no qualms about showing Frank what a heel he is, and its up to him to see the light of how his actions affect others, or continue to live the life of selfishness and sadism.

Richard Donner (The Goonies, Superman) directs, coming off of what is actually a much better (if not exactly fitting) film set around Christmas, Lethal Weapon, and while the veteran filmmaker did a masterful job crafting a funny action pic, he fumbles and stumbles frequently trying to generate a consistent tone through a rather dark, eerie, and rather noisy comedy.  Part of the reason for the strange quality of the film comes through the way it is shot, often utilizing extreme close-ups and rigid camera work, not to mention the strange lighting and lackluster cinematography that feels like it would be more at home in a Burton flick like Beetlejuice than in a typical corporate office.  Some of the film's darkness has been attributed to the fact that longtime SNL writer Michael O'Donoghue co-penned the screenplay, as he was known for his penchant for to revolve his comedy around uncomfortable subjects like death, mental problems and violence. 

Bill Murray plays the heavy, and it's an ill-fitting suit, as he frequently reverts back to his wisecracking smartass routine to get laughs and labors to effectively be a whip-cracking hard-ass when he needs to be.  The supporting cast is chock full of good actors who are given virtually no depth at all, and Bobcat Goldthwait (Tapeheads, Police Academy 4) in particular is in way over his head as a board employee laid off who begins to crack under the pressure of unemployment, to the point where he decides to bring a shotgun to work to blow Frank away.  Where is the comedic value in all of this?  Along these lines, Carol Kane (License to Drive, The Princess Bride) appears as the Ghost of Christmas Present, who seems something of a winged fairy for some reason, and who spends most of her conversation slapping, punching, and belting Frank with objects, slapstick style.  It serves no purpose but to merely seem funny for those who giggle when someone gets mock-hurt, I suppose.

One other nitpick: If Murray is 4 years old as stated in 1955 during the first Christmas Past scene, then he has to be 17 in the Christmas Past scene in 1968.  Seems a terrible decision to have Murray and Allen in the roles of themselves as teenagers as both are obviously well into their 30s.

Of course, anyone who knows the Dickens story will know that Frank eventually will have a change of heart and come to be the most obnoxious pro-Christmas proponent ever witnessed.  The problem with the attempt from a storytelling standpoint is that, throughout, Frank remains mostly unwavering by it all -- until he witnesses his own funeral.  Even the staunchest and most cruel of people might decide to change their tune if their current ways means imminent death, so in the end, it can be viewed as Frank continuing to be defiantly narcissistic even through philanthropy by only changing because of what it will do to him, and not what it might mean to those around him.

The best comedic aspect fo the film is its satirization of the network television programming around Christmas time, as Lee Majors ('The Six-Million Dollar Man') wields an AK-47 to take down some baddies at the North Pole in one movie, while singer Robert Goulet croons whole canoeing down a Louisiana swamp during a Cajun Christmas special.  Murray does get in a few laughs himself, particularly when he starts seeing and reacting to things others can't, such as a waiter serving a baked Alaska that Murray thinks has caught on fire and douses him with a pail of water.  The punch line, "I thought you were Richard Pryor", is an example of this movie's dated humor.  (If you didn't get it, actor/comedian Pryor had caught on fire in 1980 during a cocaine freebasing incident involving 151-proof rum -- something Donner surely remembers having worked with him in 1983's The Toy).  Murray's singing of the line, "Feed me, Seymour!" is a reference to his previous film, Little Shop of Horrors, and makes no sense within the context of this film.

The film ends, fittingly, with more Christmas commercialization, as the entire cast sings the Jackie DeShannon classic, "Put a Little Love in Your Heart", which isn't even a Christmas song.  However, it is in the Scrooged soundtrack, sung by Annie Lennox and Al Green, and it would become a top ten hit for the year.  Though not my personal cup of adult contemporary tea, at least the song stands up better today than the rest of this wildly uneven, alternately amusing and grating movie.
Qwipster's rating:

©2013 Vince Leo