Season’s Greetings! Thanks for taking the time during your hectic holiday hustle and bustle to stop over and read yet another one of these admittedly pleasant holiday ramblings! Due to the overwhelming response of fusspots and fussbudgets and other words that start with the same letters, I’ve buckled and decided to talk about a supposedly actual “Christmas Movie” this time. Yeah, I know, despite it all, I will always hold that huge violent explosions can and should be a part of the holiday film experience. But to silence the whiny counterproductive naysayers, I will look at a more holidayish movie.
If Charles Dickens knew exactly how many permutations and interpretations would come forth from “A Christmas Carol”, I’m sure he would’ve thrown his pen away. At the last count, there were seventeen million adaptations of this story and about four of them are at the very least halfway decent, bordering on tolerable. There’s even a few that are well regarded. The 1951 film adaptation has its fans. Some preach the wonders of the Muppet one. Still others, like me, regard the 1984 George C. Scott version as the best adaptation of the story because it is.
With that in mind, my second favorite of these versions takes a different path by being a contemporary retelling of “A Christmas Carol”. The adaptation is not perfect, but I always thought that it had more going for it than against it. Sure, the Ebenezer Scrooge character is a touch more sarcastic, but when you hire Bill Murray for the role, what do you expect? That’s right, kids! We’re diving into the pool that is 1988’s Scrooged.
Bill’s resumé speaks for itself: Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, What About Bob?, and a plethora of arty Wes Anderson movies. He has made the transition from comic actor to beloved character and character actor. However, at this point in his career, he was just returning to lead roles after the failure of 1984’s The Razor’s Edge. Using a script that was co-authored by the former Saturday Night Live writer and self-proclaimed Prince of Darkness, Michael O’Donoghue, Scrooged also was blessed with a great cast and had Lethal Weapon’s Richard Donner in the director’s chair.
Yes, Lethal Weapon’s Richard Donner! (Hah! Snuck in Lethal Weapon again in a holiday post! Like a house explosion, you didn’t even see it coming, did you? Hah!) As a matter of fact, Donner was coming off the hit that was the first Lethal Weapon when he took on Scrooged. However, despite the laugh riot that was 1976’s The Omen, Donner didn’t really have a track record with full out film comedy. Consequently, Scrooged started out with the intent of being a rather dark comedy, but it got lighter and lighter as the filming continued. The comedy got broader and ultimately this somewhat hurt the overall tone of the movie because it created an impromptu balancing act between the light and the dark that wasn’t present in the script.
This is not to say that the movie isn’t humorous and/or interesting. The take on the material is certainly fresh and engaging. Most of this is due to Michael O’Donoghue’s involvement. O’Donoghue loved the darker side of the comedy; his work on the National Lampoon magazine and the early years of Saturday Night Live both attest to this. Yet O’Donoghue was rather pissed about Donner’s handling of his original darker script. O’Donoghue did not appreciate the more slapsticky elements and lighter moments. (Bottom line: this means that Murray was originally supposed to be an even bigger prick in the movie, if you can believe that.)
Fortunately, an element from the script that survived unscathed were the parodied television shows that are advertised on the TV network that Bill Murray runs. They are all top notch! Although they’re just commercials, I know The Night the Reindeer Died and Bob Goulet’s Cajun Christmas would be appointment television viewing for me and for all of you. And how could I forget Father Loves Beaver?
Bill Murray’s Frank Cross is the glue that holds the movie together. No one, and I mean no one, can play a royal wiseass better than Murray when he’s firing on all cylinders. Some of his other film characters are loaded with smartarse elements! Look at Ghostbusters’ Peter Venkman. Look at Stripes’ John Winger. Look at Groundhog Day’s Phil Conners. (Actually, Murray’s performance in Scrooged could be regarded a test run for Groundhog Day, where it is also difficult to root for him early on because he is such a breathtaking prick.) Murray is earning his paycheck in Scrooged, especially during the first half of the movie where he is such a seemingly irredeemable and delightful bastard.
Also, here in Scrooged is the always welcome Karen Allen, playing Murray’s ex-girlfriend. Allen is charming and she certainly doesn’t disappoint here. Bobcat Goldthwait is also fun as an executive that Murray fires in the first 10 minutes of the movie. Every time he subsequently turns up in the film, he is in an even worse state of drunkenness and poverty. Bobcat is somewhat subdued in the role and for him that’s saying a lot. Robert Mitchum and John Forsythe lend an air of credibility to the proceedings and both are quite good. (Then again, Mitchum could just read pages of tax code and I would be riveted, so take that for what is worth.)
But wait, there’s more! We get the great David Johansen (yes, Buster Poindexter himself!) as the Ghost of Christmas Past and the also great Carol Kane (no, not Buster Poindexter at all!) as the Ghost of Christmas Present too?! And there’s Paul Schaffer, David Sanborn, and Miles Davis in cameos as street musicians? Wait, is that Brian Doyle-Murray just being terrific yet again? Here’s John Glover proving he can do no wrong! Alfre Woodard and Michael J. Pollard both being fabulous?! Plenty of character actor faces from Lethal Weapon make appearances too, so see who you can spot along the way! Good golly, this cast is just crammed to the gills with unbelievable talent! (No joke here, by the way, the cast is excellent throughout.)
I would be miles beyond remiss if I didn’t mention the great score by Danny Elfman. It lends a wonderful air of darkness and overall fun to the film. It is an early score from Elfman, but even at this point in his career, he conveys a delightful quirkiness that populates the best of his film work. Some elements from Scrooged would be revisited in other Elfman projects such as Beetlejuice and Batman, but as those are great scores too, I can forgive him.
And I would not be doing my highly inconsequential duty if I failed to mention the one part of Scrooged that always makes me cringe: the final redemptive ranting from Murray. Yes, the Scrooge character is supposed to be redeemed. (Unless it is the Blackadder version, of course!) But as we’ve been used to Murray being such an incredible arse for most of the runtime, the resulting redemption display seems forced. It didn’t help that Murray was pushed to improvise most of his final speech by Donner and the result just doesn’t really click for me. Thankfully, this happens during the last ten minutes of the movie, and then they head right into “Put A Little Love in Your Heart”. And Murray is obviously earnest and sincere in his pleadings, it just seems a smidge mawkish and a mite out of place.
Is Scrooged a great adaptation of “A Christmas Carol”? Well, yes, it is! I give it props for being a different and somewhat original take on the material. It provided Bill Murray his first major juicy comedic role since Ghostbusters. Murray manages to carry the load on his back and comes out the winner because of it. If for no other reason than to break the monotony of the barrage of versions of “A Christmas Carol”, give Scrooged a whirl.
Yule Love It!