“I left feeling largely unaffected and indifferent, from a film that feels as cold and calculated as its main character is at the start of the film.”
by Ken B.
Scrooged, it would seem, is filled with things I generally like. A strong Bill Murray performance, an adaptation of a well known story (Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol), a score by Danny Elfman, a Christmas setting, and bizarre, almost-surreal comedy. But I don’t really like this movie. Sometimes it feels all over the place, even though it works when its strengths are all in order, of which it has many. In the end, while there were moments while I could certainly appreciate what it was doing, I left feeling largely unaffected and indifferent, from a film that feels as cold and calculated as its main character is at the start of the film.
That main character, of course, is our Ebenezer Scrooge parallel. It is Frank Cross (Murray), a network television president, bitter and cynical. His promotion for a live production of A Christmas Carol, which will require having a large cast and crew work on Christmas Eve, involves creating a fear-mongering advertisement so unsettling that it leads an eighty year old woman watching it to her death (he sees this as the greatest affirmation of the effectiveness of the ad campaign there ever could be). He fires his one of his employees, Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait) for seemingly no real reason at all, and the most he is willing to give as a Christmas bonus to his secretary, Grace (Alfre Woodard) is a bath towel. He also forces her to work late with him developing plans, causing her to move a doctor’s appointment to determine the cause for her youngest son’s muteness (as you may have deduced, she is the Bob Cratchit of the story).
One night, Frank is visited by the ghost of his predecessor, Lew Hayward (John Forsythe), and is told by Hayward that he’s lost his way, and will be visited by the three ghosts of Christmas (Past, Present, and Future). Throughout Christmas Eve, Frank is taken to his past, where we see the story of his life, the present, where he sees the current ramifications of his actions on others, and the future, where his legacy will be laid out. You know the drill.
Over a quarter of a century from its 1988 release, Scrooged is seen by some as a Christmas classic. I can’t say I agree with that assessment – while Richard Donner’s film is by no means terrible, I’m not filled with the urge to re-watch it next December, nor even think about very much, to be fully honest. I’m struggling to fill this review space with half-coherent thoughts already (although that might be more than incidentally attributable to the fact that because I’m a terrible procrastinator, I’m writing this on Christmas Eve). But I can say that Bill Murray is good, which doesn’t come as a surprise in any way to anyone. He’s good at playing the unlikable, distant character, which, by all accounts, is the direct reverse of the actor’s real-life personality. Often, people are best at playing the opposite of themselves. Murray makes Frank, despite the character being a hideous man, compellingly watchable, but stopping short of making the man a schmuck and making the viewer return artificial sympathy. Frank is skeevy, selfish, narcissistic, and genuinely unpleasant, much as Ebenezer Scrooge is, so at least there is something that Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue’s screenplay can pull off.
But Scrooged can’t live just on Murray’s performance or the moments where the script decides to wake up and start working (and it knows how to – the lead up and content of the scenes involving the Ghost of Christmas Future are hard proof. Oh, and just about everything with Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present). And while the supporting cast is solid as well, the film spends so much time wallowing in retreaded anger and cynicism that when Frank’s character transformation finally occurs towards the close of the 101 minute movie, reflecting the final plot development that is so beautiful and poignant, yet straightforward, in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, it feels forced, obligatory, and without half of the attempt it lodged at the amount of buildup it used in crafting everything before it. There is a better, even potentially great movie that has been hiding and bubbling just under this one for the past couple decades, and by the level of appreciation many exert, they may have seen it. I sure haven’t.