Scrooged (1988) is lucky it has Bill Murray. Of course, aren’t we all? The movie is underwritten, doesn’t earn its goodwill and trades in the very exploitation that it pretends it’s working against. But at its center is Murray, Hollywood’s most likable schmuck, who pulls off a Christmas miracle by keeping the movie away from the odious unwatchability it was destined for.
It’s an updating of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with Frank Cross (Murray) as Scrooge, a low-life television executive who mistreats the people he works for, disregards the feelings of others and the safety of animals and has a sign in his personal gym that reads, “Cross: a thing they nail people to.” It’s very telling that the portrait of his mother Frank hangs in his office is a cubist nightmare. Frank is overseeing the live Christmas Eve broadcast of A Christmas Carol on his network and discovers he’s living the story, being visited by his old boss Lew (John Forsythe), who died years ago, who warns him of three more ghosts to come: Christmas Past (Buster Poindexter), Christmas Present (Carol Kane) and the terrifying spectre Christmas Future. Along the way, Frank learns the power of love and Christmas.
The movie feels cheap and rushed. It obviously wasn’t shot during the winter (there’s no snow, which is possible, but there’s also no visible breath or any of the other things that give away the season), and the characterizations are so undercooked that we don’t buy Frank’s transformation. The movie’s problem is with the way it’s written, which wants it both ways: to make us laugh at its bad behavior but also swallow its redemption story. It doesn’t fully commit to either and therefore it feels disingenuous throughout, particularly at the end. Compare this movie to another Murray vehicle, Groundhog Day(1993), which is essentially the same story, and you can see how far Scrooged goes afield.
I’ve mentioned before that I think Groundhog Day is the perfect comedy. I’ll add that I think Airplane! (1980) is the funniest movie I’ve ever seen. To understand the difference is to understand everything. Groundhog Day forgoes being as riotously funny as Airplane! so it can achieve its narrative goals, which is for us to follow a pathetic man on his journey to being a better version of himself. Airplane! doesn’t have any narrative goals, other than to create situations for jokes. We don’t follow Airplane! anywhere, but we’re laughing the whole way. Groundhog Day had to stay focused on telling us a good story first and making us laugh second. Scrooged wants it all and ends up with next to nothing.
The very opening act of the movie, so crucial when establishing tone, is muddled. After a series of network TV Christmas special spoofs (“Tonight on IBC, Robert Goulet’s Cajun Christmas!”), Frank is in a boardroom chewing his staff out about an accurate but old–fashioned ad promoting the Christmas Carol broadcast. Frank insists on a different spot of his own design, which is an apocalyptic fear-inducing sensation that has as much to do with A Christmas Carol as The Gulag Archipelago. Frank mentions that he’s the youngest network president in television history because he understands the people, but we instinctively know that anyone who would run that ad for that show won’t be network president for very long.
In the next scene we meet the big boss at the network, Preston Rhinelander (Robert Mitchum), who is introduced babbling about how pets will soon become avid television watchers and that IBC must start programming for animals now. At this point, to an audience, he ceases to become an authority and is a senile old man, an object of ridicule, and the movie does wring a few laughs out of the idea of feline viewership, but it undercuts the character, who, when he does emerge later as an imposing figure, feels empty, rendering him toothless (to say nothing of wasting having Robert Mitchum in your movie). It’s obvious that the filmmakers wanted both their outrageous A Christmas Carol ad and to have Murray make faces at the loony Rhinelander, but that does a disservice to both characters. It’s hard to get a bead on the movie’s satirical target when it keeps fluctuating the level of competency of the people its lampooning, especially when the movie is just beginning and we’re trying to orient ourselves within it.
Still, Murray is such a watchable bastard that if you don’t think about it at all, you can finish Scrooged under the impression you had a good time. His timing is so wonderful, his wry reactions of frustration and rage so piteously hilarious, he’s the perfect jerk. Richard Donner, who directs, does an exemplary job of filling in visually the emotional gaps left by the script. He gets a lot of good stuff from reaction shots, especially from Murray as he watches himself in the past, giving color and direction to a script that’s missing it. Alfre Woodard is also very good as Frank’s secretary Grace, the Bob Cratchit of the story, even though it’s hard not to feel as if she and her family (a preternaturally wholesome septet in a cramped apartment) aren’t being cynically used for sympathy. Karen Allen is fine as Frank’s former flame, though what we see of her and Frank’s relationship is so rushed we can hardly be expected to mourn for it. All the secondary characters are simply there for Murray to work his magic on, and that’s the problem: he’s very funny, but he’s doing so to no purpose.
This lacking comes to a head in the bizarre final redemption, the bread and butter of a Christmas movie, when Frank comes on air and extols what he’s learned about the magic of Christmas. Far from heartwarming, this scene feels desperate and unsatisfying and makes Frank seem crazy—and we know what he’s been through; think of what the viewers at home would make of it.