By Matt Fleming. RETROGRADING is my attempt to parse the films of yesteryear, just to see if they hold their ground.
Prologue: “The Ghost of Bill Murray’s Past.”
With the possible exceptions of bacon and Jennifer Lawrence, Bill Murray has become something of a sacred cow with the internet crowd. His unforgettable roles in some of the most classic films of the last four decades (Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Rushmore, and Lost in Translation just to keep it short) coupled with his legendary flair for mischief and fan service have created an icon that grows larger with the years. However, looking back at Murray’s career, one notices not only professional missteps, but some down and dirty rumors of his personal behavior: ego and arrogance kept Murray estranged from former writing/ghost-busting partner Harold Ramis for nearly twenty years. Professionally, for every Wes Anderson film, there is a Garfield, a Larger Than Life, or a second Garfield.
Holiday movies can elicit great performances from slumping actors (Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation) and revitalize careers (Tim Allen, The Santa Clause). (Sometimes you wind up with Jingle All The Way, a terrible movie worth watching for its absurdity.) Inevitably, holiday sentiment works its magic, lessons are learned, and carols are sung, a formula all too familiar to American filmgoers. Scrooged attempts to modernize a classic story, lace it with satire, and place it in the arms of one of the biggest comedy stars of the ‘80s, and for its effort, it nearly becomes a classic. Ultimately, it fails as a complete film, leaving only a false memory of greatness.
Part One: The Plot, or “Frank Cross’ Very Scary Christmas.”
The occasionally funny modernization of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol begins with satirical holiday television programming (a tame precursor to the shows seen in 1989’s UHF), highlighted by “Bob Goulet’s Old Fashioned Cajun Christmas.” Frank Cross (Murray) is the irascible president of the IBC television network, whose Christmas production of “Scrooge” is set to air live the next day. (Having the name of Dickens’ work changed always stuck in my craw.) Cross’ assistant, Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard), struggles as he terminates a sad-sack employee (Bobcat Goldthwait, still in his quiet-loud phase). That night, the heartless Frank is visited by his former boss (John Forsythe, playing a ghost) who proffers the chance to turn his life around before it’s too late.
The major beats of the Dickens classic are there, but this being Hollywood, the romantic sub plot is a focal point, featuring Karen Allen as Claire, a kind, caring opposite to Frank’s heartless crank. A grimey David Johansen takes Frank through Christmas Past, where he goes from an innocent child to a charming adult, ultimately choosing success over love. The second ghost, a physically aggressive Carol Kane, shows him how Grace and her family struggle to keep afloat as her youngest son suffers from mental trauma. The ghost also gives Frank a peek at his brother’s Christmas dinner, proving that despite his crummy behavior, his brother still loves him.
Eventually, he comes face-to-face with a homeless man from Claire’s shelter, who is later forced below the streets where he freezes to death. Everyone at IBC believes Frank has lost his mind, and his erratic behavior pleases Brice Cummings (John Glover), a rival executive. The third ghost, Christmas Future, appears as an exaggerated Grim Reaper-type, who takes Frank into the void that is his uncomfortable inevitability of dying alone. Upon his release from this terrifying future, Frank is deliriously giddy. Goldthwait’s terminated employee has returned seeking lethal revenge, but Frank sweet talks him into returning to work with a pay increase. The two hijack the live broadcast of “Scrooge,” with Frank delivering a “reason-for-the-season” diatribe, apologizing to those he has wronged, and begging Claire to take him back. Frank’s emotional speech warms everyone’s hearts, and even inspires words from Grace’s mute son. The film ends with a cringey sing-along of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”
Part Two: The Cast, or “One for All.”
Scrooged is a film that seems to have a cast of a hundred, yet ultimately depends on one person more than any. Between era-appropriate cameos and faces recognizable from future productions, keeping up can be dizzying. The ensemble is necessary for such a production, but ultimately Scrooged rides squarely on the shoulders of Bill Murray, a task the actor seems both capable of and annoyed by.
According to Murray (in a Roger Ebert interview), he and director Richard Donner had some tough times on the set, the director asking the star to keep getting “louder.” Murray’s tone in the film mostly varies in his volume, and his usual command of subtlety is replaced by screaming. His aggression succeeds in translating the more terrible aspects of his character, but he falls totally flat when he attempts to redeem Frank Cross. The completely unlikable character becomes a good guy after one apology, and he just sounds like a crazy person. Gone is the nuance Murray displayed in Ghostbusters, replaced by obnoxiousness and laziness. His rambling speech at the film’s end does little to engender sympathy to his character, instead coming across as the cringe-worthy last words of a delusional man dying of heat stroke.
The supporting cast coasts between slightly funny and sort of serviceable. Bobcat Goldthwait’s Eliot Laudermilk is simply an excuse for ‘80s Bobcat to make crazy faces and noises, to which he succeeds. Karen Allen is sweet and smiles a lot, but her character is too altruistic for Murray’s. Allen’s highlight comes during Frank’s future trip: Claire, made up like Jack Nicholson’s Joker, cackles sharply as she decries a group of homeless kids. David Johansen is just fine as the taxi-driving Ghost of Christmas Past, as is Carol Kane as the fairy-like Ghost of Christmas Present. While their time on screen is brief, both actors make their fantastical characters their own. Johansen is grimey but sympathetic, and although he drives as well as most cabbies, his insight is worth the fare. Kane is a bit more obnoxious, but her physical domination of Frank is endearing, making her shrill voice just a bit sweeter. Alfre Woodard serves as the heart of the film, and her family’s scenes are the sweetest sentiments Scrooged really offers, with the holiday transcending their woes. While she may seem underappreciated in a movie with such a large cast, Woodard makes a fine surrogate for Bob Cratchit.
Before cameos, the cast also includes the always-excellent John Glover as the smarmy rival executive after Frank’s job, and stoic Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum as IBC’s owner. The other three Murray brothers that pursued acting are also along for the ride (in order of most famous to least): Bryan Doyle-Murray as Frank’s father, Joel as a party guest, and John as Frank’s brother. (It’s saying something about Bill’s pull after Ghostbusters that he got his least-talented brother the role with the most lines.) From there, it’s just cameo after cameo, including some older actors who wouldn’t make it to the ‘90s, sadly. For anyone born after this movie came out, names like Anne Ramsey, Buddy Hackett, and even Mary Lou Retton are unrecognizable. My personal favorite is Homeless Herman, played expertly by Michael J. Pollard of Bonnie and Clyde. His brief scene mistaking Frank for Dick Burton always brings a chuckle from me, as his frozen demise draws a single tear. Yeah, Frank, you shoulda gave him that two bucks.
Conclusions: “God Bless Us, Everyone (With Half Of A Movie).”
Richard Donner directed multiple classics, from Superman (and some of its sequel) and The Toy, to The Goonies and the Lethal Weapon series. When I look at his filmography, I realize how many of Donner’s films I have seen, enjoyed, and even loved. Unfortunately, neither his direction nor Bill Murray’s charm can transform this 90-minute holiday fable into a completely realized film. Scrooged has genuine moments of joy and heart, but it goes too far into making Murray into Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge’s redemption feels earned and pure, whereas Frank Cross seems to just want the ghosts to leave him alone (and for Karen Allen to be his big spoon). Once the protagonist has his unlikely change of heart, the moral is regurgitated and puked into a bowl of unearned saccharine feelings. Somehow, watching this movie (a long-held classic of my childhood) multiple times in December has not filled me with any kind of spirit of the season; rather it made me upset that someone could be so horrible and just say, “but now I’m not a schmuck!”
Scrooged begins as a dark and funny satire that loses its focus, and after a heavy first act, incompletely builds empathy for its main character. Bill Murray, one of the great comedic talents of the last forty years, cannot manage to make an unlikeable character feel redeemable, and worse yet, can’t bring the laughs like he should. While it has a very special place in my heart (and memory), Scrooged doesn’t live up to its reputation. A holiday classic is lurking inside there somewhere, but it never quite materializes. I’d only recommend watching this for the nostalgia (especially with friends or family that share an appreciation for the film). That might be enough to elicit some true holiday cheer.
-Scrooged ends with Bill Murray breaking the fourth wall, speaking to theater-goers and encouraging singing. He also drops the line, “Feed me, Seymour, feed me,” referencing his cameo in the true classic, Little Shop of Horrors.
-Brian Doyle-Murray is hilarious as the neglectful, veal-gifting Dad. Go buy your own choo-choo, you lazy four-year-old.
-For a PG-13 film in 1988 (one about Christmas, of all things) there is a lot of swearing, and a scene that is just about nip slips. Also, right before Frank makes up with his long-estranged girlfriend, he straight-up makes out with a dancer on live television. This movie is not for kids.
-Also, regarding above statement, the fake TV show Father Loves Beaver? “If I know your father, he’s probably out chasing Beaver!” Again, not for kids.
-Some other familiar faces that show up include Kathy Kinney (Mimi, The Drew Carey Show), Jack McGee (Chief Reilly, Rescue Me), and Roy Brocksmith (Total Recall, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey).
-Also, in the world of a million cameos, Frank Cross insults a group of street musicians that include David Sanborn and Miles Freaking Davis.
-Frank’s commercial for “Scrooge,” described by Laudermilk as “A Manson Family Christmas,” is still pretty terrifying. The film’s first ten minutes set too high a bar.