Directed By: Richard Donner
Starring: Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe
Tag line: "The spirits will move you in odd and hysterical ways"
Trivia: Bill Murray and director Richard Donner reportedly did not enjoy working together, creating a lot of tension on set
A modern retelling of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with Bill Murray as the heavy? Sounds like a winner to me.
And Scrooged is a winner... to a point.
While it’s an occasionally funny, sometimes dark look at a television executive who’s lost his way, Scrooged doesn’t quite measure up to such holiday-themed classics as A Christmas Story, Elf, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. In short: Scrooged is good, but as you’re watching it, you can’t shake the feeling that it should have been better.
Frank Xavier Cross (Murray) is the youngest network President in television history, and he didn’t get the job by being a nice guy. In fact, he’s such a cold-hearted bastard that he fired junior executive Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait) the day before Christmas (for daring to offer an opinion that differed from his own). See, Frank is a bit on edge because network president Preston Rhinelander (Robert Mitchum) is breathing down his neck, pressuring him to put out a Christmas special that will blow the competition away. And how will Frank respond to the challenge? By broadcasting a live Christmas Eve performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, starring Buddy Hackett as Ebenezer Scrooge and Olympic medalist Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim!
To make sure the show goes off without a hitch, Frank tells his secretary Grace (Alfre Woodard) that she has to work late, and even refuses an invitation to Christmas dinner from his only brother James (John Murray). But as Frank sits in his office waiting for the show to start, he’s visited by the decaying corpse of his former boss and mentor Lew Hayward (John Forsythe), warning him that his eternal soul is in jeopardy. To help Frank discover the true meaning of Christmas, Lew tells him that he’ll be haunted by the ghosts of Christmas Past (David Johansen), Present (Carol Kane), and Future, all of whom will be stopping by shortly. Is it too late to save Frank Cross, or is there still a chance he’ll realize the error of his ways and reunite with his old flame Claire (Karen Allen), who’s every bit the humanitarian that Frank is not?
Scrooged gets off to a great start with some hilarious “commercials” for upcoming Holiday shows, including The Day the Reindeer Died, an action-oriented telemovie in which Lee Majors plays a commando trying to save Santa’s workshop from terrorists; and the musical special Robert Goulet’s Cajun Christmas. Murray, too, starts off strong, intimidating a roomful of executives and forcing them to air a violence-laden commercial he himself assembled for the upcoming live performance. Unfortunately, Scrooged is more hit-and-miss as its story unfolds; the Christmas Past sequence is handled well enough, with Johansen making for an entertaining ghost, but aside from visions of his troubled childhood (involving his father, played by Murray’s real-life brother Brian Doyle-Murray), we never get a sense of what drove Frank to be the ruthless, vindictive S.O.B. he is (per the flashbacks, his relationship with Karen Allen’s Claire was strong right up to the end, and never once did he show signs of being a back-stabbing young executive). And if we don’t understand why Frank is such a jerk, his ultimate redemption won’t mean a thing to us.
The biggest issue I had with Scrooged, though, is something that should have been one of its strengths: Bill Murray. A gifted comedic actor, Murray can usually play miserable guys like Frank Cross in his sleep (he was flawless as the wise-ass weatherman in Groundhog Day). But in all of his best films, Murray is usually understated, as if the jokes came naturally to him. In Scrooged, he seems to be forcing things, and as a result, Frank Cross is more manic than your average Bill Murray character, making him less genuine in the process (the big speech he delivers at the end fell flat). Part of the problem might have been director Richard Donner (“He kept telling me to do things louder, louder, louder”, Murray said of Donner, and by all accounts, the two didn’t see eye-to-eye while making this movie), but whatever the case, Scrooged doesn’t feel like a true Bill Murray picture to me.
Some of the supporting players are good, especially Woodard as the long-suffering secretary, and Karen Allen is cute as a button as the love interest / one that got away. It was also cool to see all four Murray brothers appearing in the same movie (aside from Bill, Brian Doyle, and John, Joel Murray plays a guest at James’ Christmas party). This, along with some funny sequences (though her scenes are very strange, I did laugh once or twice when Carol Kane’s demented Ghost of Christmas Present started throwing punches), make Scrooged a decent film.
But if you’re on the hunt for a new Holiday classic you can watch every December, you best keep on looking