Richard Donner is known primarily for being the director who convinced you that a man could fly, but he also directed and produced the first Christmas movie I ever saw where the lead character was something more than despicable. In a way, Scrooged is kind of a precursor to a film like Bad Santa where the audience isn’t supposed to like or even feel much empathy for the lead role. And even though Scrooged is a take on A Christmas Carol, the leading male in the Scrooge-like role just seems far more unlikable than any Scrooge I ever bore witness to.
The Scrooge in this film is played by Bill Murray, an actor who has made an awful lot of money portraying selfish, sarcastic, and cynical characters that audiences are able to embrace because that character offers some redeeming qualities. Murray’s Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters ultimately embraces his hero role and puts his life on the line for the city of New York. Groundhog Day’s Phil Connors is quite the unlikable character at the film’s onset, but throughout the movie he’s redeemed and becomes a better person in the end. In Scrooged Murray plays Frank Cross, a television executive whose ambition in life is entirely career oriented. Unlike many depictions of Scrooge, he’s not necessarily out solely for financial gain (though that’s definitely a part of it, and he’s pretty cheap) as his main ambition appears to be to rise to the top of the career ladder. He’s ruthless, self-centered, and shows no empathy for the people around him. As a television executive, he approves a television spot for an upcoming live edition of A Christmas Carol that has an apocalyptic feel opting to lure in viewers through fear and intimidation rather than on the strength of the program he’s pushing. He shows no regard for his loyal secretary, Grace (played by Alfre Woodard and the film’s Bob Cratchit), and makes her work late with no Christmas bonus, and when one of his subordinates (Bobcat Goldthwait’s Eliot Loudermilk) disagrees with his absurd TV spot he has him fired. Usually we can laugh at a Bill Murray character even when he’s a jerk. With Frank Cross, we can’t even laugh at him because he’s too good at being mean.
I am an unabashed Bill Murray fan. I love him in pretty much any role. I don’t know exactly what it is about Murray that appeals to me so much. He’s obviously a great actor whose range still seems to surprise people whenever he takes on a more dramatic role. He’s best known for comedies and I certainly have a nostalgic affinity for Ghostbusters. He also reminds me of my own father so that can’t hurt. With that said, even I find it hard to watch the first half hour of Scrooged. Frank Cross is a terrible person and he gets away with so much. His brother James (John Murray, Bill’s real-life brother) is willing to forgive his short-comings to a fault, while ex-girlfriend Claire (Karen Allen) almost seems to ignore his numerous flaws. We never quite see how the two characters broke-up, just a hurt Claire proposing they take a break when Frank once again chooses his career over her, and we get the sense that Frank just shrugged his shoulders and forgot to ever follow-up on that break. I watched the film recently with my fiancé who remarked that she kind of hated the movie while we were in its early stages and I couldn’t blame her. I do wonder if perhaps Murray and Donner felt like Murray was too likable as an actor at this stage in his career and that they needed to over-do just how awful Frank is to counteract that. The film does benefit some from this overly cruel Scrooge as the character is redeemed by the film’s conclusion, but I still get the sense the Cross character was overdone. Not only is he too cruel, he’s not always believable in his cruelty. And it’s somewhat surprising that this character even could be redeemed.
The film was initially hyped as a special effects bonanza. Given that the film was released in 1988, these effects are not impressive by today’s standards. The effects are mostly put to use with the film’s ghosts. Just like in A Christmas Carol, Frank is visited by three spirits, the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. All take on an appearance and character to better suit this film’s setting of 1980’s New York. The first ghost, played by David Johansen, is a cab driver who takes Frank on a tour of his past giving the audience insight into his childhood and past relationship with Claire. Christmas Present is played by Carol Kane and she is portrayed as a violent fairy-type. She repeatedly strikes Frank and is likely to be the character who induces the most laughs. The Ghost of Christmas Future is depicted as a Grim Reaper-like figure whose main twist is a television screen for a face (and his “body” is revealed as a mass of screaming souls that looked revolting in the 80’s but kind of cheesy now). A lot of makeup effects are in use with the ghosts, and the best is probably reserved for the Marley character played by John Forsythe. His decomposing body is grossly, and convincingly, portrayed on-screen with lots of gray and a dusty, flaky, texture.
For the film’s comedy, it tends to rely on a grab bag of tricks as opposed to resorting to one style. A lot of the “humor” in the film’s early scenes are of the dark variety as the audience is asked to laugh at the misfortune of others. It’s horribly mean-spirited, and some won’t find any laughs at all. As the film moves along the humor becomes more dialogue and situation specific with less of a mean tone. There’s also physical comedy, notably from the Ghost of Christmas Present and later in the film when Goldthwait’s Eliot goes off the deep-end. It’s not a rip-roaringly funny film, but the laughs are spread around well once it gets past the early parts. The score is done by Danny Elfman and it’s a pretty typical Elfman type of score. People seem to either love or loathe Elfman but I’ve never had anything against him and find his score suitable here.
Since this is a take on A Christmas Carol, Frank is shown the error of his ways and comes around by the film’s conclusion. Just like how his cruelty felt overdone, the big redemption scene feels similar as Frank hi-jacks the live television production of A Christmas Carol to share his new-found appreciation for Christmas with the world. It’s uncomfortably funny and drawn out, but does provide the happy ending most were probably hoping for. The film’s beginning and its end make it feel like the film is a lot longer than its 101 minutes running-time, but by the time it did end my fiancé had come around and proclaimed it “cute.” I suspect most viewers will have the same experience. Scrooged is too flawed a film to be a true Christmas classic, but it is well acted and differs enough from other clones of the source material to make it a worth-while viewing experience. Those looking for something a little less saccharine in their Christmas movies will probably get the most out of Scrooged.