It’s time for the actual Christmas review and I’ve chosen to go for a Late Movie Night feature. As I said in the previous post, I’m not really a fan of holiday films. So, I had to choose a flick that would have a merry holiday theme but still appeal to me enough not to be a snoozefest. The answer was Bill Murray playing a sarcastic, self-centered asshole with a redemption arc. This is a role he excels at. This is yet another iteration of a loose adaptation of A Christmas Carol with a twist. It’s Bill Murray at his best. Christmas is saved.
Scrooged (1988) was directed by Richard Donner and written by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue. This is inspired by Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol which has been adapted so many times and in so many TV specials and episodes that it feels pointless to even contemplate doing it again. The movie itself does the meta thing of producing a movie within a movie by actually filming an all-star cast of Scrooge (which I am aware is not the name of the classic novel, don’t at me) live on Christmas Eve.
This is the work of heartless network president Frank Cross (Bill Murray), who makes his assistant Grace (Alfre Woodard) work on Christmas Eve and fires the only voice of dissent against his apocalypse-flavored ad, Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait), in less than five minutes. Frank is the kind of man that while sending gifts to all his associates will decide between a towel and a VCR (that’s a video cassette recorder, it’s an 80’s thing, don’t worry about it) would decide to send his only brother James (John Murray – Bill’s actual brother) a towel. You know Frank is about to get his comeuppance soon.
Soon enough, Frank receives a visit from his former boss, Lew Hayward (John Forsythe). We will get to see him without the decrepit makeup soon enough. Lew warns him of the future that Frank is carving for himself. Humanity, he says, should’ve been my business. This is the first sign that the ghosts are not messing around. The next sign is probably Frank hanging outside the building. With the already expected warning that he will be visited by three ghosts, Frank is left to his own devices. That is, after the phone dials by itself calling Claire (Karen Allen), Frank’s former girlfriend.
Although he’s rattled, Frank tries to get on with work. Clair shows up after so many years but Frank is unwilling to make time for her. He goes to meet his boss Preston Rhinelander (Robert Mitchum) for lunch and finds out sleazy fast-talker Brice Cummings (John Glover) has been assigned to assist him with all the production – and even possibly takeover his job. Unfortunately, Frank is already being haunted and seeing things that are not there. He hastily leaves the restaurant and takes a cab.
But this is not any ordinary cab, it’s driven by the Ghost of Christmas Past (David Johansen). This is definitely a New York City take on the story, and at least this choice is genius. Johansen is very memorable playing the first Ghost. Frank obviously knows the drill, he knows he’s going to see his past life. We immediately get that his father Earl (Brian Doyle-Murray, also brother to Bill) is one of the reasons he’s so detached from life and focus on business. His mother Doris (Lisa Mende) wishes him a Merry Christmas after his young self (Ryan Todd) has just been “gifted” a cut of veal. When later on we witness Frank meeting Claire for the first time, we also get to see them celebrating Christmas together. One thing to notice here is that when Claire asks Frank about opening gifts on Christmas eve, he mentions how some would “spoil” if not opened right then and there – a callback to the earlier scene.
The Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane) is another irreverent highlight of this film. Kane is her chaotic, angelic best self with some added violent tendencies that bring the slapstick up several notches. This faery ballerina knocks Frank into next week as her means of transitioning from one scene to another. In this way, Frank gets to see the life of his assistant Grace as well as her family, including non-speaking youngest Calvin (Nicholas Phillips). He also witnesses the gatherings of his brother James and his wife Wendie (Wendie Malick) with their guests, which happen to be screenwriter Mitch Glazer and Bill’s other brother Joel Murray. Frank also had a chance to meet some of the homeless people from the shelter earlier, including Herman (Michael J. Pollard). In a dark twist of fate, he finds him frozen to death when he’s left behind by the Ghost.
The movie has its dark moments, which I am thankful for. The satire on network television and holiday specials trying to capture an audience is particularly obvious, even if the movie itself is trying to do the same thing. The cast is particularly larger than you think, with cameos from Lee Majors, Robert Goulet, Buddy Holly, John Houseman, Mary Lou Retton and the Solid Gold Dancers among others just playing themselves. The mix makes it both a satire that has a bit of an edge, albeit one that gets softened up for the feel good sing-a-long ending. If not for Murray’s heartfelt speech which reportedly went off the rails and has a lot of ad-lib and his fourth-wall breaking at the end, the last act would feel a little bit dragged. Instead, we have Murray to thank for carrying the whole film to the very end.
So, let’s talk about the Ghost of Christmas Future. In every incarnation of A Christmas Carol, this is the one I pay close attention to. This is the Ghost that is less of a personality and more of a force of nature. This one brings very dark omens for Frank. We first see Frank reacting to the TV actor who plays this Ghost in the elevator, then he almost gets taken by a giant skeletal hand and it gets interrupted by the return of Eliot Loudermilk in full revenge mode. The movie signals what it’s going to happen beforehand, teases us with the fake one, distracts with Eliot and then has it materialize in the elevator with Frank when we’ve almost forgotten about the spectre. What we get as the future is the worst and darkest. As everything else in the film, there are no surprise outcomes. It’s not the ending, it’s the trip of seeing Murray’s performance to all these events.
Recommended as one of the few new holiday classics that doesn’t make me cringe. It’s not flawless, and we all know where the film is going. But it’s one of those where the trip is more important than the destination, and it’s another of those Bill Murray films where he’s literally the best reason to watch it. The satire on network TV is brilliant. The dark edgy moments are tame for today’s standards, but there’s always one of your old-fashioned relatives that finds the movie too dark or scary for holiday season. I think it’s just enough to make it entertaining.
That will do for now.