SCROOGED (1988)

  • Director: Richard Donner
  • Writers: Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  • Starring: Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, John Glover, Alfre Woodard, Bobcat Goldthwait, David Johansen, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, and Michael J. Pollard
  • Accolades: 1 Oscar nomination (Best Makeup)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV.

A Christmas Carol is the greatest of all Christmas stories, and in many ways the original, so it is no wonder that it has been adapted more times in more ways into more movies than almost any other work of literature. We’re featuring two of these adaptations this year in our Holiday Virtual Film Festival, both of which are pretty out there in their own way. I think that Scrooged might be the more out there, which is saying something because the other adaptation we’re featuring involves puppets and “the Penguins’ Christmas Skating Party.” But there’s a reason we watched The Muppet Christmas Carol in our house every Christmas Eve, and I had never seen Scrooged before. Don’t get me wrong, Scrooged has numerous redeeming qualities, among them what I think is one of the better Bill Murray performances in a career full of great performances. But the movie isn’t just whackadoodle, which is something I’d usually go for. Nearly every reviewer called it “cynical,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. It just feels mean, all the way through. And when Murray’s TV exec Scrooge stand-in has his big turn at the end, it feels less like he’s reformed and more like’s he’s just gone nuts.

Scrooged tells the story of Frank Cross (Murray), a heartless TV exec who, in the movie’s first few scenes, fires a staffer (Bobcat Goldthwait) on Christmas Eve and screams at his assistant and Bob Cratchit stand-in (Alfre Woodard) for not being willing to work late because she has to take her apparently autistic kid to the doctor. But he is visited by an old boss (John Forsythe) and visited by three ghosts over the course of a live Christmas Eve television special of A Christmas Carol (there is a lot of narrative recursion in this movie, which is another thing I like about it). His version of the story apparently involves scantily clad dancers (“Charles Dickens would want to see her nipple!”) and Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim. In the end, he hijacks his own special to tell everyone to celebrate Christmas Eve with their families and gets back together with his old girlfriend (played by Karen Allen and her extremely attractive eyeballs).

I think my basic issue with this movie is that, in most versions of A Christmas Carol, the ghosts show Scrooge that connecting with other people is actually important and that Christmas is great because it lets us connect with people. The ghosts in this movie spend almost all of their time just beating up on Frank, both verbally and, especially, physically. Carol Kane plays the Ghost of Christmas Present and both kicks Bill Murray in the balls and smacks him in face with a toaster, for no discernable reason. Even if you think this is funny (and I am not going to pretend I’m immune to the comedic charms of Bill Murray getting smacked in the face with a toaster), what it means is that the story doesn’t actually make any sense. It only works because we’ve seen other versions of A Christmas Carol and know he’s supposed to be nice at the end, not because the movie gives him any reason for being nice whatsoever.

That said, there are lots of funny parts. I honestly think the best thing in the movie is the opening bit, showing the network’s slate of Christmas Specials, including “The Day the Reindeer Died,” starring Lee Majors, and “Robert Goulet’s Cajun Christmas,” involving the singer frantically poling his swamp boat away from an alligator while crooning carols. I really liked Bill Murray in this movie, too. Everybody loves Murray, but I think he can sometimes, accurately, be accused of just playing himself, particularly in his more recent movies. But in Scrooged, he’s actually giving a performance as a character other than himself, a selfish guy who doesn’t understand other people when they’re not selfish themselves and even takes joy in the pain of others. He’s here different from the Bill Murray you’ll see in any other movie.

Scrooged was Murray’s return to movie acting after taking four years off following the success of Ghostbusters. He ad-libbed many of his lines, much to the consternation of the scriptwriters, both of whom eventually voiced their extreme displeasure with the final product. Murray himself later stated that he is disappointed with the movie, partly due to his difficult relationship with director Richard Donner. He is not the stereotypical director for a Bill Murray comedy, being best known for his big blockbusters, especially the 1978 Superman and Lethal Weapon. He does seem to have let Murray do his thing, however, for better or worse. I find that, if anything, watching Scrooged makes me appreciate the success of Ghostbusters more. Both movies feel very shaggy, going off in all directions, as if a bunch of different people had creative input, but in Ghostbusters, it works beautifully. In Scrooged it just feels like they didn’t take enough time (or took too much time) to figure out what movie they actually wanted to make. 

So I am a cynical person, but this is not a movie for me. But lots of people are, in fact, big fans, and these days Scrooged often ranks highly on lists of the best holiday movies. I think a big reason for that might be that holiday movies tend to work in a limited emotional palette, so to speak. There aren’t that many that do something different, or weird, or take risks. For whatever its flaws, Scrooged certainly does all those things. When people say they “hate Christmas,” I think for the most part they don’t really hate it. What they hate is the pressure to feel and act the same way everyone else in society feels and acts about it, a pressure that feel overwhelming this time of year. Like A Nightmare Before Christmas, Scrooged represents those people, though it does it in a very different way. So if you love it, more power to you.

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