It is almost a guarantee that come Christmas there will be some new adaptation, or parody, of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Now that It's a Wonderful Life is back under copyright, the other typical go-to is a little harder, but the story of old man Scrooge and his visitation by three ghosts is fair game. The 1951 version starring Alastair Sim is probably the most popular straight reading, while for comedic versions I have always enjoyed the Blackadder Christmas special.
For many, though, Scrooged has become required holiday viewing. I saw it originally a couple years after it came out, and wasn't all that impressed. I didn't hate it as much as some of the critics did at the time, but I felt so much potential was wasted. I appreciate a late '80s effects movie revisiting the old theme once again, but I remembered very little over the years other than the movie is practically yelling at the audience throughout. From what I have read, Bill Murray himself seems to agree with me.
Francis Xavier Cross (Murray) is the president of the IBC television network. His pet project for the year is a live Christmas Eve presentation of Scrooge, featuring John Houseman as the narrator, Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim and the Solid Gold Dancers. Other than the money it brings in through advertising, Cross couldn't care any less about Christmas, to the point where he has his long-suffering secretary Grace (Alfre Woodard) give a towel to his own brother James (John Murray) as a company Christmas gift.
To put icing on the cake, when Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwaite), one of his main executives, questions Cross's violence-driven advertisement for Scrooge, he finds himself out on the street with Cross looking on in amusement. Cross finds himself pressured by his own boss, Preston Rhinehart (Robert Mitchum), especially when an up-and-comer from Los Angeles named Brice (John Glover), who happens to be friends with Rhinehart's son, shows up and starts angling for Cross's job.
It is no surprise that Cross thinks he is suffering from hallucinations, or the beginnings of a breakdown, when the ghost of his old Lew Hayward (John Forsythe) shows up and informs him he will be visited by three ghosts, starting at noon on Christmas Eve. As a parting shot, an unknown force dials the number for Claire (Karen Allen), Cross's old flame whom he pushed to the side on his way up the corporate ladder. Surprised himself, he leaves a message for her, and she comes to visit him the next day. Busy as usual, he takes her card and promises to call her if anything else happens.
Happen it does, in the middle of a posh restaurant and a lunch with Preston and Brice. Rather than make more of a fool of himself, Cross leaves to catch a cab, only to be picked up by the Ghost of Christmas Past (David Johansen), who takes him on a tour of his past Christmases - the neglect of his father (Brian Doyle-Murray), his first Christmas with Claire and eventually their parting as his career became more important. He eventually arrives back in the present, appearing in the middle of Scrooge rehearsals, concerning those he works with but delighting Brice, who thinks that Cross's sudden breakdown means that the job is easy pickings.
To get his head right Cross decides to visit Claire at the homeless shelter she runs, only to get mad that she is putting the needs of the poor ahead of his. Shortly after, he receives his next visit, this time from the Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane), who literally attempts to beat into him what his actions are doing to those he loves, from his brother's family, to that of his secretary and, finally, the ultimate fate of one of the homeless men he met earlier. Once again, he is returned to the stage of Scrooge and, seeing the actor dressed as the Ghost of Christmas Future and verbally dressing him down, is removed from the set and to his office.
Unfortunately for Cross, Loudermilk has been able to spend what little money he had not spent on booze on a shotgun, and shows up in Cross's office to take revenge on the boss that has ruined his life. Cross flees, running into the real Ghost of Christmas Future (Robert Hammond), who proceeds to show him his, and Claire's, futures if he continues on the path he is on. Appalled, and with the same aplomb as Ebenezer himself, Cross decides to change his ways and, with the help of Loudermilk and his shotgun, hijacks the production of Scrooge to let the world know.
I can see why many people like this. The effects are great throughout, and so is Bill Murray. He has made a number of missteps in is acting career, and he was coming off of a big one (The Razor's Edge) and almost retiring from acting all together. Scrooged was a bit of his comeback film. And, yes, you can bet the ads played up the fact that this movie, like his last blockbuster, had ghosts in it.
Of the ghosts, Kane does her saccharine BDSM thing well, but it is David Johansen that stands out. His brand of craziness comes naturally, rather than feeling like director Richard Donner is the background yelling at him to make it bigger - which, according to Murray, was much of the problem he had in making the film. To his credit, Murray was right in majorly changing the script and making Claire more important, as I find his motivation to return back to the time when he was happy to be more important for Cross than discovering the "meaning of Christmas."
I do appreciate the dark tone this takes throughout. PG-13 at the time still largely meant R with a little less nudity and swearing. Donner didn't go overboard, since it is a Christmas movie, but he also didn't make a movie for kids. The Ghost of Christmas Future, combining the imagery of death with Cross's love for television, is more effective than most of the versions. Cross himself, relishing the fear that he puts into his own employees and his viewers, is a monster all on his own. There are several scenes that the poor, beaten-to-a-pulp censor from Standards an Practices would have messed her drawers over. That's not even taking into account making light of workplace shootings and some obvious sexual harassment that occurs - in front of live studio cameras, no less.
Still, in the end, it is all undone by, once again, literally shouting the whole point to us as if we didn't understand the whole meaning of A Christmas Carol a century and a half on. I understand the need to have some light moments in what is essentially a very bleak comedy, but an ending that is practically all sunshine and rainbows was just too much.
So, almost 30 years after originally seeing it, I realize a bit more why it didn't become required viewing for me. It tries way too hard to match up with other dysfunctional Christmas movies from the same time period (A Christmas Story was already becoming a tradition why National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation was a superior contemporary). It's nowhere near as memorable or enjoyable as those others.
Time: 101 minutes
Starring: Bill Murray, Karen Allen, David Johansen, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, John Glover
Director: Richard Donner