If attaching one’s name to classic properties can be a sign of star power on the wane (both for directors and actors), a proclivity for appearing in Christmas movies most definitely is. Just look at Vince Vaughn’s career. So was Bill Murray running on empty a mere 25 years ago? He’d gone to ground following the rejection of his straight-playing The Razor’s Edge by audiences and critics alike, meaning this was his first comedy lead since Ghostbusters four years earlier. Perhaps he thought he needed a sure-fire hit (with ghosts) to confirm he was still a marquee name. Perhaps his agent persuaded him. Either way, Scrooged was a success. Murray remained a star. But he looked like sell-out, sacrificing his comedy soul for a box office bonanza. He’d seem even more calculating seven months later when tired sequel Ghostbusters II emerged. Scrooged is guilty of exactly the kind of over-sized, commercially cynical production this modern retelling of A Christmas Carol (only partially successfully) takes pot shots at during the first act.
If The Muppet Christmas Carol displays its self-awareness by having Charles Dickens (Gonzo) narrate the tale, Scrooged exists in a world where Bill Murray’s TV exec (Frank Cross) is charged with hosting an all-singing all-dancing live Christmas Eve production of the classic tale. That might suggest more than enough material for astute social commentary and an abundance of self-reflexivity. Unfortunately, Scrooged continually soft soaps the satire, with only the occasional gem to render it distinct.
Credited writers Michael O’Donoghue (a SNL veteran) and Mitch Glazer set the scene promisingly; a trailer for The Night the Reindeer Died, featuring Lee Majors at the South Pole saving Santa Claus; another for Bob Goulet’s Old Fashioned Cajun Christmas. But the bad taste rehearsals for the live broadcast aren’t nearly bad taste enough; they just look like standard shitty TV, with a has-been lead (Buddy Hackett) playing Scrooge and a few lines about seeing the nipples on the dancing girls. Everything hinges on Bill Murray bringing the dark heart, but the material continually fails him. The best he gets is acute remorselessness over a viewer who died watching his apocalyptic Christmas trailer. That, and his instruction to staple antlers to the “reindeer” mice. Robert Mitchum is cast as Murray’s even less scrupulous boss, identified as losing the plot because he believes cats and dogs will become valued TV viewers over the next 20 years.
Not helping matters is Bobcat Goldthwait as a well-meaning underling fired by Frank (Rick Moranis must have been busy). Much of Goldthwait’s screen time consists of laboured comedic attempts to live the life of a wino; only in the final third, when he pursues Frank with a shotgun, does his casting vaguely pay off.
The saving grace on the TV studio side is John Glover’s enormously upbeat fellow exec, vying for Frank’s job. Alfre Woodard’s Grace shares the Bob Cratchit-equivalent role with Goldthwait. Hers is an especially thankless role; she’s even lumbered with a Tiny Tim-like son (Calvin) who doesn’t speak (as if to telegraph that this is Tiny Tim, at one point Calvin is shown watching Tiny Tim in the Alastair Sim Scrooge). You know he’s just waiting for that Bill Murray-induced Christmas miracle.
This unmeasured sentimental side makes the whole pudding particularly difficult to digest. Perhaps it’s a consequence of director Richard Donner’s unsuitedness to the comedy genre. He should have been deterred by his first foray, Richard Pryor bomb The Toy, but unfortunately he subsequently had a big success with The Goonies (not an actively bad film, but a noisy and indulgent mess nevertheless; its considerable following is more reflective of a generation’s nostalgia than any intrinsic merits). Donner can eke the laughs from an essentially dramatic movie effectively enough (Lethal Weapon) but even then he has a tendency not to know when to reel it in (the sequels). On the plus side he doesn’t shoot Scrooged like it’s a typical Hollywood comedy (ie, indifferently) but neither does he have much a sense of comic timing. Nor a feel for what plays and what doesn’t. Maybe this was partly a reflection of a more general ‘80s comedy malaise, but you can’t help wish someone with a less fettered sensibility (John Landis) or keener satirical faculty (Joe Dante) had been let loose on the material.
Murray’s characterisation is all over the place, so he yo-yos between caustic wit and likability depending on the demands of the scene. The one area the picture scores over other recent adaptations is with the Ghosts who at least ensure there is a consistently heightened tone once the fantasy plot line takes hold. John Forsythe is the rotting cadaver of Frank’s old boss (the Marley figure, who appropriately appeared to have died on the golf course). David Johansen is a break from the norm as a leeringly unsentimental Ghost of Christmas Past. But Murray goes and gets all teary-eyed from the off, ruining a nice moment when his brother Brian Doyle-Murray, as Frank’s dad, brings his four-year old son five pounds of veal from Christmas rather than a choo-choo train. The scenes with the adorable Karen Allen are continually misjudged. It’s only Allen’s milk-of-human-kindness performance that clings to the unlikeliness of their coupling.
The highlight of Scrooged is the Ghost of Christmas Present sequence. Carol Kane is hilarious as an insane, hyperactive and physically abusive fairy. She’s the only performer in the movie able to steal scenes from Murray wholesale, and she does so repeatedly (to be fair to him, he’s game). Whether she’s punching him in the face, blowing raspberries on his belly or attacking him with kitchenware (“The bitch hit me with a toaster!”), Kane’s a whirling dervish of energy and the movie misses her when she exits. Another Murray brother, John, plays Frank’s brother James; it’s a cute sign of the age of the picture that the best present he could receive is a Pioneer video recorder. Less cute is the surfeit of product placement throughout. That’s definitely a manifestation of the dark side of Frank Cross, or Paramount at any rate.
The Ghost of Christmas Future is same-old, same-old on the surface but beneath its cowls lurk the kind of ghastly prosthetics that only Hollywood megabucks can buy (leading Frank to utter the very meta, “Did our people do that? We’re going to get phone calls”) All but acknowledging the loss of Kane, the future sequence struggles for impact (and thus is unable to seal the deal on Frank’s salvation). The writers settle on a highly unlikely moral about-turn for Allen’s Claire, such that Frank’s heartless has infected her (and little Calvin has been put in a padded cell; there’s only room for overkill here).
If that’s a misjudgement, it’s as nothing compared to the awful, awful, finale Donner, Murray, and the co-writers have cooked up. Staged as Frank’s impromptu live TV confessional, Murray appears completely at a loss. The resulting sequence is car crash viewing. It has the appearance of improvisation, but this isn’t clever witty improvisation. It’s well-established dry wit Bill Murray attempting to gush heartfelt sincerity while all about him there is stunned silence. If you look closely, you can see the tumbleweeds roll by as the crew turn away in embarrassment at the mess their star has made. “What are you doing watching TV on Christmas Eve” Frank has the cheek to ask his audience, before exhorting everyone to go out and do some good. Because, “You’ve got to have a miracle”. Murray’s dying up there on that sound stage, attempting to approximate the enthusiasm of a born again true believer, so its inevitable that little Calvin only goes and speaks. Would you believe it? By the time the credits roll, there won’t be a dry pair of shoes in the house. They’ll be adorned with your vomit.
Maybe Murray was well aware that his ending was inept. He got a second crack at the “life lessons” movie six years later in Groundhog Day. If that gets one thing wrong that Scrooged gets right (the female lead), in every other respect it is a vastly superior piece of work. Crucially, it didn’t encourage its star to attempt an unbelievable character makeover. Murray without an edge just isn’t Murray; Murray speaking from the heart, oozing fake sincerity, is downright horrific. It may be rather defeating the point of the tale, but if you turn of Scrooged 15 minutes before the end, it’s a significantly more enjoyable movie.