Scrooged (1988)

scrooged

“Bah humbug”

The Scoop: 1988 PG-13, directed by Richard Donner and starring Bill Murray, Karen Allen and Bob Goldtwait

Tagline: Bill Murray is back among the ghosts. Only this time, it’s three against one.

Summary Capsule: It’s A Christmas Carol… do I need to spell it out for you?

Justin’s rating: Excuse me young boy, what day is this? Oh… it’s Arbor Day? Hurm. Okay, then.

Justin’s review: Like Shakespeare, the number of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol adaptations seem to number in the thousands. Dickens’ 1843 tale tapped into the non-religious feel-good Christmas message of “Life is good, Christmas makes life gooder, so go be happy!” with a vengeance. The first film adaptation came out around 1910, and since then we’ve witnessed a Muppet version, a Mickey Mouse version, and even a freaking Mr. Magoo version. Scrooge has been played by Captain Picard, Yosemite Sam, Dr. Frasier, George Patton, and, um, Michael Caine. So why, do you ask, would we possibly need another version with…

Bill Murray? Huh. No kidding.

Okay, guess I answered my own question. If there ever was a comedian born who could both play a good-hearted funny man and an evil, snarking Scrooge, Murray is that man. I’ve had a lot of people express surprise over this movie, in as much as they’d never heard of it, and come to it worried that they’d overlooked a long-lost Bill Murray classic. Don’t worry about that too much, I tell them. It’s a good film, sure, but nothing spectacular. Definitely not Groundhog Day dressed up in mistletoe.

A big obstacle to making this a classic is that A Christmas Carol is already a classic, and one we’ve seen ad nauseum. Sure, Scrooged tries to dress up this time-worn tale in modern day (read: late 1980s) trappings, but it’s still the same story, and we still know how it’s going to end. And, oh, what an ending. But I’ll get back to that in a bit.

Murray plays Frank Cross, a grouchy television exec who’s obsessed with putting on a $40 million production of A Christmas Carol for his network on Christmas Eve. The thinly-coated irony is that Cross is really Scrooge in the flesh: mean to his employees, spiteful of Christmas, and stingy with cash. Yet, Murray can’t seem to make Cross as dark as he should’ve been – he’s more like a blend of Venkman’s off days with Phil-the-weatherman’s better ones – and he flip-flops between pretending to be bad and being a fairly likable guy. If somewhat demented, that is.

The movie-within-the-movie concept is an interesting twist, but other than that it’s standard Christmas Carol fare. Cross gets a visit from his former boss (deceased) who warns him of the imminent visitation of three ghosts who will try their best to meddle in Cross’ life. Cross writes this off as a hallucination brought on by stress and his network’s big project, at least until the first ghost arrives and yanks him back to the past. As much as Murray seems hemmed in by the limited material he’s given to work with, the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future are unrestrained in contrast, free to run away with their parts. I’d even go so far as to say that the ghosts steal the spotlight, particularly the abusive ghost of Christmas present (Carol Kane).

Another nice distraction from the retread storyline is the number of star-spangled cameos that appear, such as Bobcat Goldthwait, Jamie Farr, Robert Goulet, and Mary Lou Retton (as “Tiny Tim”… okay…). I wished they spent more time with the hilarious Christmas TV parodies, such as the opening “The Night The Reindeer Died” (with Lee Majors!), but UHF this is not.

By far, the biggest stumbling block for Scrooged in becoming a beloved Christmas cult classic is the ending. Thar be spoilers here, but c’mon, you know how the story ends! After Cross has his famous change of heart, he returns to the studio and hijacks the camera for a lovey-dovey denouement. No matter when you think that they’ve reached a point where Cross makes a great statement and there’s a touching little moment and the credits will roll… the film keeps on going.

The end is basically 15 minutes of Murray rambling about how wonderful and magical and toe-tapping musical Christmas is, encouraging the cast to engage in singing a stupidly long song, and it. Just. Never. Ends. Comedies should leave you on a high note, a burst of energy, or a great laugh. Scrooged feels like it ends with you attending a so-so cast wrap party, without the benefit of alcohol to liven things up.

I don’t mean to be too harsh, for Scrooged at least tries to be a cut above the other Ebeneezers out there. I probably rewatch this every three or four Christmases, right around the time when my mind begins to erase memories of this movie and I don’t dread the prolonged ending when it arrives.

“Salut!”

Intermission!

  • The cover for Scrooged is maybe the oddest expression Murray’s ever given for a movie poster
  • Staple antlers on a mouse’s head… I’m so there!
  • Kids make great replacement Christmas trees
  • Bill Murray’s real-life brothers, Brian, John, and Joel appear in the film.
  • At the end of the movie, when everybody is singing “Put a little love in your heart”, Frank (Bill Murray) says (among many other things): “Feed me, Seymour!” This is a reference to Little Shop of Horrors, in which Murray has a small part.
  • When The Ghost of Christmas Present first appears in the movie, she says to Frank Cross, “I’m a little muddled.” This is a direct quote from Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz when she first meets Dorothy in Munchkinland.
  • Director Richard Donner is a worker in the control room at the end of the film.
  • When Carol Kane grabbed Bill Murray’s lip, she tore his lip so badly that filming was halted for several days.
  • Naturally, most of the characters are based on characters in A Christmas Carol: Frank Cross is Ebenezer Scrooge; his brother James is the Dickensian Scrooge’s nephew Fred; both Eliot Loudermilk and Grace could be said to share the role of Bob Cratchit; Grace’s son is Tiny Tim; Lew Hayward is Jacob Marley; Hermann and his fellow indigents are the “portly gentlemen” who are refused financial help; and Claire is Scrooge’s former fiancée, Belle.
  • The ghosts, while under the same names, are altered for an urban setting. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a cab driver with a Brooklyn accent and the ghost of Christmas future appears as Death but with a TV screen for a face. The Ghost of Christmas Present is more or less a campier female version of the ghost in the original story.

Groovy Quotes

Props man: [about the mouse] I can’t get the antlers glued to this little guy. We tried Crazy Glue, but it don’t work.
Frank Cross: Did you try staples?

Frank Cross: Oh my gosh, does that stink. We’ve spent $40 million on a live TV show, you guys have got an ad with America’s favorite old fart reading a book in front of a fireplace! Now, I have to kill all of you!

Frank Cross: I’m gonna give you a little advice Claire. Scrape ’em off. You wanna save somebody? Save yourself.
Claire Phillips: Oh well that’s a really nice attitude. Merry Christmas.
Frank Cross: Bah humbug.

Frank Cross: Do you think I’m way off-base here?
Elliot: Yes. You’re, well, you’re a tad off-base, sir. That thing looked like The Manson Family Christmas Special.

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4 comments

  1. I just read the scrooged intermission “Director Richard Donner is a worker in the control room at the end of the film”

    That is not a cameo by Richard Donner, it’s actually Richard Donner’s Cousin Steve Kahan who generally has a bit part in most of Richard Donner’s movies. He is best know as the Captain in the Lethal Weapon Movies. They look almost identical for cousins. Google images of both men… it’s uncanny. Cheers!

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