A mean-spirited, vulgar, slapstick take on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Thank god.
By Paul Mavis
Bill Murray’s expensive, special effects-laden Scrooged didn’t earn nearly enough money back in 1988 to break even for Paramount, while critics grumbled at Murray’s return to the big screen after an extended 4-year break. However, this herky-jerky, often amusing (and surprisingly touching) updating of Dickens’ classic has found a loyal following after 30-plus years of cable repeats and re-packaged home video releases. Thoughtful as well as frequently hilarious, with Dickens’ redemptive Christian message surviving all the mayhem and glitz, Scrooged delivers big laughs among the big set pieces, a particularly memorable Murray turn…and maybe even sniffle now and then (awwww…you sappy bastards).
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The youngest network president in television history, IBC’s Francis “Frank” Xavier Cross (Bill Murray) will stop at nothing to “own” Christmas in the Nielsen ratings. Banking his job and the network’s reputation on a $40 million live satellite production of Dickens’ classic, Scrooge (starring…Buddy Hackett), the sadistic, egocentric, wildly mercurial Cross isn’t happy with the namby-pamby ad spots developed by his junior executives to promote the Christmas extravaganza…nor does he like his own violent, blood-soaked ad for the show denigrated by schlub Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait), whom Cross promptly cans for his unasked-for opinions.
Cross’ put-upon secretary, Grace (Alfre Woodard), is horrified that Cross would do such a thing at Christmastime (she has her own problems, including rotten pay from Cross and a child who won’t speak, slipping away into his own world). But the gleeful, oblivious Cross ignores her, focusing only on the upcoming special (which includes LeRoy Neiman painting the Berlin Wall, and the papal Pontiff baptizing the entire Zulu Nation), and his own career trajectory. That rise to the top, though, is threatened by the network’s screwball owner, Preston Rhinelander (Robert Mitchum), who hires unctuous “L.A. slimeball” Brice Cummings (John Glover) as Cross’ assistant—an unwanted move that puts the already paranoid Cross into apoplexies of rage and fear.
So imagine the reality check Frank experiences when he’s visited by the mummified ghost of his former boss, Lew Hayward (John Forsythe), who warns Frank that he’ll be visited by three more ghosts on Christmas Eve, and that Frank had better start concerning himself with mankind, as Frank’s old flame, Claire (Karen Allen), has made a life out of doing…or face the terrifying consequences.
I distinctly remember going to a weekday matinee performance of Scrooged a week or two before Christmas back in ’88, where it was playing in a huge, completely empty multiplex theater…and thinking to myself as I walked down the long, long aisle, “Uh, oh, what did I just buy a ticket to?” I’ve seen the movie countless times since then (my kids demand it right after Thanksgiving dinner), enjoying it much more on TV than I did in the theater (it’s difficult to have a lot of fun watching a comedy alone in an empty airplane hangar).
With some distance, I can see now why it didn’t take off with audiences and critics the way Paramount was expecting it to, who were no doubt expecting a Ghostbusters-sized blockbuster. At the time, the critics took a particular dislike to the tone of the movie, calling it “mean-spirited” and “nasty”—a strange charge for a movie version of A Christmas Carol that demands Scrooge be mean-spirited and nasty to make his spiritual conversion all the more pronounced (the critics seemed to have missed or deliberately ignored the many scenes in Scrooged that show genuine tenderness and sadness, such as Murray’s wonderfully evocative trip back to his lonely, TV-saturated childhood).
More to the point: didn’t the critics see that this Christmas Carol was a Saturday Night Live-flavored adaptation, at least in spirit, considering the participation of SNL alumni Murray and co-scripters Mitch Glazer and Michael “I’d like to feed your fingers to the wolverines” O’Donoghue? They were maybe expecting Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol? Of course this Scrooged is going to be cruel and violent—and more the welcome for that change-up, considering “respectful” adaptations of the innumerably-filmed short story obviously dominate (my all-time favorite adaptation is equally disrespectful: the 1970 Odd Couple TV episode, where “Ebenezer Madison” wishes “fat creep” Santa to be eaten by his reindeer, as well as Oscar’s desire to beat the wings off a sugar plum fairy with a giant candy cane—violent notions, perhaps, after O’Donoghue’s own heart).
I’ve always wondered what Scrooged’s critical and box office reception would have been if it had stuck to Mike O’Donoghue’s original script and been released with a hard “R” rating, skewing more towards the rougher Caddyshack territory rather than the family-friendlier Ghostbusters (certainly O’Donoghue would have agreed; he later disavowed this PG-13 version of his screenplay). Perhaps it was the choice of director, as well. If I wanted to shoot a hip, cynical, foul version of Dickens’ classic, I wouldn’t hire Superman‘s laid-back, genial Richard Donner as the helmer. He’s there to insure a safe handling of the huge budget and the special effects (reportedly over $40 million, not including the huge promotional campaign Paramount laid out—a very hefty sum back in ’88). At those prices, Donner wasn’t going to deliver another Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video (reportedly, Murray couldn’t stand Donner, claiming the director didn’t know anything about comedy).
Then again…audiences paying good money to go to a theater have traditionally had a hair-trigger aversion for Christmas-themed movies that skew more negative than positive (check the grosses for Disney’s hilariously misconceived One Magic Christmas, from 1985, for a perfect example), so Scrooged was automatically going to be a harder sell than say, Home Alone (that’s why Scrooged has fared better on TV than it did at the box office; TV audiences looking for a Christmas movie will watch anything, negative or positive, as long as it’s on while they wrap presents).
And it’s important to remember, too, that by 1988, Bill Murray had already hit his box-office peak four years earlier with 1984’s massive hit, Ghostbusters…only to disappear from screens after the utter critical and box-office failure of his first dramatic role in his personally-shepherded version of Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (talk about hilariously misconceived…). Taking four years off (with the exception of a brief cameo in Frank Oz’s 1986 musical remake of Little Shop of Horrors) may as well have been “forever” when your stock and trade is the smart-assed, cynical youth market (and when you’re pushing 40, too). That fickle audience has a tendency to move on. Murray was still years away from achieving his reinvented persona of the talented “serious” actor inside the hipster jokester, so when the big, lumbering, expensive Scrooged came out in ’88, Murray’s sell-by date was already a drag on the box office (even the highly-anticipated Ghostbusters II the next year seriously under-performed).
Scrooged‘s misguided ad campaign didn’t help, either, linking an unflattering “vanity project” image of Murray (what’s with that blown-out mall hair, the waxy, cartoony face, and that stupid smile? Why isn’t he sneering or smirking?) with an implied Ghostbusters connection—the skeletal hand lighting his cigar…which doesn’t happen in the movie—a connection that doesn’t quite play out in Scrooged. The expensive special effects are ultra-smooth, but they don’t dominate the story, nor do they overwhelm the viewer, as they did in Ghostbusters.
So, audiences wanting Ebenezer Meets Slimer didn’t get what they expected, producing tepid word-of-mouth, as evidenced by Scrooged’s big premiere weekend then sharp b.o. drop-off. And audiences who had had enough of Murray (or…had forgotten about him), stayed away in sufficient numbers to keep Scrooged squarely in the red with an anemic $60 million gross—a huge hit to troubled Columbia Pictures, which was expecting Scrooged to be their big Christmastime “tent pole” savior, with an anticipated $200 million-plus gross along the lines of Murray’s Ghostbusters (by comparison, “small” movies Rain Man and Twins, both released in December and made for comparative peanuts, scored $300 million-plus and $200 million-plus grosses, respectively).
As for Scrooged‘s central theme—greed is bad, and “getting involved” is good—it’s always problematic to preach to an audience about the evils of money and the joys of good works…from the pulpit of a big, shiny, hugely expensive Hollywood product designed to deliver unending residual checks to millionaires (Donner’s ham-fisted placements of “Free South Africa” posters and stickers throughout his frames are particularly annoying). Still, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is almost impossible to screw up—perhaps the most malleable short story in the English language, and one that has survived countless adaptations with its message still strong and intact—and Scrooged is no different.
The message of Christian redemption through epiphany is successful in Scrooged, regardless of tone variations and vulgar, slapstick content. Certainly some aspects of the script’s adaptation from Dickens’ original are hit and miss. Splitting the Bob Cratchet character between Eliot Loudermilk and Cross’ secretary Grace, Goldthwait’s take on a drunken, murderous Elmer Fudd scores big laughs over Woodard’s sweet but ultimately beside-the-point Grace. Her autistic child/Tiny Tim crossover doesn’t work at all (that sleepy child actor doesn’t help), while worse, neither Grace nor Eliot express any kindness or understanding for Frank when he’s at his worst towards them—a critical miscalculation of the Dickens story that robs their subplots of one of the story’s main points: Christian forgiveness.
That forgiving quality is captured in the scenes featuring Bill Murray’s real-life brother John, playing Frank’s on-screen brother James, and those moments are quite successful for their faithfulness to Dickens’ intentions (John Murray has a natural, unaffected demeanor here that plays nicely off Bill Murray’s outsized abrasiveness). Surprisingly, transforming what is a minor character in the original story—an old love of Ebenezer’s—into Karen Allen’s social worker Claire, works, too, mainly on the strength of the incandescent Allen’s performance (her scenes with Murray show Murray at his quirkily romantic best, and she’s obviously enjoying his turn: listen to her delighted, real laughs at Murray’s funny ad-libs.
Luckily, Scrooged has lots of memorably funny lines and amusing set pieces to smooth over the sometimes choppy editing and story construction. The expensive, large-scale “cold” opening of the assault on Santa’s workshop, which is revealed to be a TV promo for an upcoming IBC program, The Night the Reindeer Died (“At 7:00, psychos seize Santa’s workshop!”), may be Scrooged‘s funniest sequence, with a Vietnam-flavored Santa who screams, “Incoming!” as in-bound mortar shells fall at the North Pole, and who declares, when offered a chance to slip out the back way, “This is one Santa that’s goin’ out the front door.” (Lee Majors is a good sport spoofing himself here, getting off a great triple-take at Santa when the big man momentarily stops the counterattack to declare, “And Lee…you’ve been a real good boy this year!“).
Cross’ own TV ad for his live, multi-million dollar Scrooge spectacular is hysterical, as visions of the Apocalypse are shown MTV-style as the announcer ominously intones, “Acid rain. Drug addiction. International terrorism. Freeway killers. Now…more than ever…it’s important to remember the true meaning of Christmas.” Robert Mitchum is typically hilarious in his few scenes discussing future programming with “pet appeal” for those TV-watching cats and dogs (who in ’88 would ever believe such channels would actually exist?)…before later viciously kicking a cat like a soccer ball.
Murray’s sneering, nasty, “Bye, bye, Grandma! Bye bye!” is a family favorite around the Mavis household, as Murray steals a package-laden woman’s cab, waving and flipping her off as she screams, “You sonavabitch you should rot in hell!” (that throwaway scene suggests a far different Scrooged that might have been). John Forsythe is super-smooth and amusing—even as a revolting, rotting mummy—visiting the disbelieving Murray in his office, who pulls a revolver and promptly blasts the liquor bottle-holding corpse six times, prompting Forsythe to quip, “I don’t mind you hitting me, Frank…but take it easy on the Bacardi.” Murray’s totally superfluous imitation of Cleopatra’s Richard Burton is another arbitrary highlight, while Carol Kane’s entire sequence as the Ghost of Christmas Present plays like a Three Stooges short with a million dollar budget. Murray’s and Kane’s violent interplay is an absolute delight (watch Murray’s look of horror and disgust when she burbles, “You know I like the rough stuff, Frank”), and their mean, vicious slapstick generate the movie’s biggest laughs: you won’t hear “That bitch hit me with a toaster,” in any other Christmas Carol adaptation, that’s for sure (reportedly, Kane got too aggressive with Murray during their scenes, actually injuring him several times, including that lip-pull).
As for the most controversial scene in Scrooged—the very last scene, where Murray effectively halts the movie and pitches a long message about Christmas directly to the audience—I’ve always felt it was quite daring. Cynical critics despised this wrap-up. In particular, I remember Ebert’s nasty take on it (to his credit, at least this movie he watched all the way through before panning it…). However, Murray’s ad-libbed lecture comes off as a brave move, taking a massive machine like a $40 million dollar Hollywood Christmas movie and essentially throwing out a conventional ending to have its star deliver an impassioned sermon on the “Christmas miracle.”
Calling this finale “manipulative” and “cynical” as some critics did, I don’t see how the filmmakers could have felt that same way, knowing it was a gamble to deviate from a “manipulative,” “cynical” formula that might have guaranteed big money at the box office: substituting Murray’s rant for a big, safe, special-effects laden ending that would have given the audience what they were expecting. As such, Murray’s sermon came as a big surprise to me when I first saw Scrooged, and having now re-watched it numerous times, I’m always impressed by Murray’s genuine, impassioned sincerity. Now…is he playing us for fools with this “act,” as the perverse trickster Murray has so often done in the past? Perhaps. And if so…then that’s a brilliant joke on us, making triple-twisting Scrooged even more deviant than imagined.
However…the message he delivers is true—it’s never too late to change, no matter who you are, or what you’ve done (well…for most things, I guess)—and that message is stronger than any potential goof perpetrated on us by Murray and company. And most importantly, at least to these eyes, Murray looks like he really believes that message. His delivery here catches me up every time I see it. Either way—prank or truthful sermon—it’s a remarkable way to end an expensive, calculated product like Scrooged.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews at Movies and Drinks. Read Paul’s TV reviews at Drunk TV.