Bill Murray, Karen Allen, Robert Mitchum, John Forsythe, David Johansen, Carol Kane, Buddy Hackett
(Paramount Pictures; US DVD: 1 Nov 2011 (General release); UK DVD: 1 Nov 2011 (General release))
One of the great things about time is that it creates perspective. The more of it that passes by, the better the opportunity to review and reconsider. It applies to everything and anything, from the serious to the superfluous, the meaningful to any media. What may not seem so special upon first glance ages into something that’s either wrongfully criticized/celebrated or rightly defended/dismissed. This has especially become true in the world of film. Thanks to the Internet and the every shifting marketplace of ideas, what was once seen as a miss suddenly becomes a halting hit. Case in point – the seasonal satire inspired by Dickens immortal A Christmas Carol, Scrooged. When it was initially released, it was seen as a desperate move by a comedian whose commercial cache had suffered since his superstarmaking turn in Ghostbusters. Now, it takes its place among the pantheon of post-modern holiday laughers.
Of course, the truth centers on certain cinematic realities. While far from perfect, the Richard Donner directed farce at least finds a clever way of updating the iconic Ebenezer Scrooge for a 20th Century audience. Our hum-bug hero is a top TV executive named Frank Cross (Bill Murray) who is knee-deep in a massive spectacle production of the beloved Victorian seasonal story. Featuring questionable casting and stunts in abundance, the fate of the entire network rests on this live broadcast. Under tremendous pressure from his boss (Robert Mitchum), Frank needs everything to be perfect. Into this mess comes the ghost of a former friend and mentor (John Forsythe) who warns of a life in pursuit of nothing but career.
Indeed, Frank had a chance to be happy with social worker Claire (Karen Allen), but he put his professional life ahead of anything personal. Naturally, we then get the haunting by three distinct spirits – a crude cabby Ghost of Christmas Past (David Johansen), a sinister sprite-like Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane) and a technologically advanced Ghost of Christmas Future. Along the way, Frank learns of Claire’s heartache, his brother’s determination to connect with his famous sibling, and the day to day struggles of his put upon personal assistant, Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard). Vowing to make a change, Frank sabotages the Christmas Eve extravaganza to make sure his millions of viewers understand the real reason for the season.
When you consider the crap it has to compete against – Christmas with the Kranks, Jingle All the Way, Deck the Halls – Scrooged easily steps away from the pack to become a cynical yuletide treat. Dividing critics upon its release in 1988, it was/is either ahead of its time or a mere aesthetic survivor. Like A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life, it represents a woefully underappreciated entity that found a way to thrive over time. Now, we can’t conceive of a Noel without these favored films. But 23 years ago, audiences were less than enthusiastic. Scrooged stumbled at the box office, took its time to earn its sugarplum stripes, and today still suffers from a last act malaise than undermines everything the beginning and middle meant to destroy.
Indeed, the finale is Scrooged’s artistic Achilles Heel. We know that Frank is going to have a last minute change of heart, the fact of his imminent mortality driving a newfound appreciation of life. We know that Grace’s mute son will speak, that Claire will find her way back into her ex’s affection, and that the dramatic curveball (i.e. California network creep Brice Cummings – John Glover) thrown into the mix will meet a silly, slapstick end. As with the rest of the film, it’s not a question of what will happen, but how it will get there. In the beginning, we got a great set-up, an interesting introduction into Dickens’ designs, and a tasty trio of spectral guides. Everything is ready for a ripping conclusion…
…and then Scrooged stumbles. As a matter of fact, it wildly whiffs the dismount and trips up on the landing. Murray may be one of the more complicated and engaging presences on any movie screen, but to give him a 15 plus minute speech speaks to a narrative that doesn’t really understand where it’s been. Up until the moment when Frank finds his inner holiday happiness, we’ve had humor tinged with blackness, comedy both dark and dopey. Yet once the screed starts in all its adlibbed lameness, Scrooged just stalls. It just goes on and on and on and on without every focusing in on a point. Instead, it plays like an unnecessary star turn by a performer demanding the spotlight.
Luckily, the rest of the film makes up for such a pathetic payoff. As with many high concept efforts from the era, Scrooged is filled with big production value and even bigger, over the top F/X. The Carol within the Carol is classic, featuring such laugh out loud casting as Buddy Hackett as Ebenezer Scrooge and gymnast Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim. Equally entertaining is Bobcat Goldthwait as the nerdy, nebbish Eliot Loudermilk. Donner, as he has done throughout his journeyman time in Tinseltown, delivers everything with a clear, concise approach. Nothing quirky or surreal – just the story of a vile TV executive and his tenure as a tyrant-in-the-making. Even Murray manages more chuckles than challenges. When the material threatens to overwhelm his smart ass sensibilities, he finds a way to win us back.
In the long history of motion picture re-examinations, Scrooged clearly comes out on top. Time has indeed been kind to this not-always-nutty funny business. With each passing Christmas, Murray’s manic performance and the unique take on the celebrated source finds more and more favor. It will never take the place of such secure title traditions as Miracle on 34th Street (the original, not the various remakes), the 1970 musical version of Dickens’ famed figgy pudding, and anything Rankin Bass. But with the continuing commercialization of the holiday and its various tinseled temptations, something like Scrooged feels more and more like a natural extension of things. Once, it was regarded as something of a failure. Now, it’s a mandatory part of any shoestring Saturnalia.