The Tenth Day of Christmas: Scrooged
If yesterday’s film Scrooge (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951) was the most traditional of tellings of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, then Scrooged (Richard Donner, 1988), with Bill Murray in the pivotal lead role, is one of the most unusual. Murray in this movie plays not a Victorian Ebenezer Scrooge, but a contemporary 1980s Frank Cross, a television executive who, though clearly very important within his network, does next to no work, and whose cruelty is matched only by his narcissism. Though he is in charge of a live Christmas Day broadcast of a more traditional Scrooge production, Cross somehow fails to recognise his similarities to the legendary character, and so he himself is visited by his old business partner and then three Christmas ghosts who endeavour to change his ways. The results are eccentric and, at times, very funny, even if Scrooged does not quite pack the emotional and moral punch of other versions of Dickens’s tale.
Indeed, the structure allows a duality of sorts. It allows Donner’s film to mock the traditional story on the one hand, whilst also earnestly rehashing it on the other. Though both through-lines have their highlights within Scrooged, its failure to commit to either full-on wacky comedy or Christmas fairy tale mean that, eventually, it becomes caught between the two forking tonal directions, its foot in each camp meaning neither approach lands with great impact come the film’s inevitable final redemptive act. In fact, compared to other versions of the tale, the third act in this one goes a little crazy. It becomes rambling and overlong; ends with Murray breaking the fourth wall in a painful attempt to seem more knowing and post-modern than it actually is; brings a very odd character to the forefront in Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwaite) who you feel should never have made it into the final cut of the movie at all; and tries to have its cake and eat it by allowing Cross to rekindle his long-lost romance with Claire (Karen Allen), an undeserved happiness that he is rightly denied in more traditional versions. Nevertheless, even as we, the audience, sit bewildered whilst Murray repeatedly encourages us to sing along over the end credits, we do recognise that, until this overwhelming finale, the movie has been a hell of a lark, and that, in the case of Scrooged, perhaps the journey matters more than the destination.
The premise of the movie is nothing short of genius, modernising the Scrooge character with one of the greatest comic actors of all time and making him even more cruel than his Victorian counterpart, and yet scarily believable in a nightmare vision of corporate America. And the film only gets better with the introduction of the ghosts, easily the most entertaining and memorable incarnations of Christmases past, present and future that I have ever seen on screen. Past (David Johansen) is a straight-talking, cigar-smoking New York taxi driver who is more than happy to verbally spar with Cross, but even he is surpassed by Present (Carol Kane) whose sweet, Christmassy name and looks hide her excitement at comically beating Cross until he either loses his senses or comes to them. These two give our lead character such a rough ride, that by the time we get to Future and the tortured demon children he hides under his coat, you can almost feel Cross’s relief. Another one of the ways the film differs from the traditional pattern is by letting Cross return to the real world between visits, giving Murray a chance to both further display his comic talents and show us the manner in which his version of Scrooge subtly changes as he is affected by each ghost. It is a shame, then, and a missed opportunity, that towards the end you feel his character takes huge, unearned leaps. There was a great opportunity here to pace out his redemption purposefully and show it in action as he gradually changes, but it is squandered and largely left to that wild final act where Cross seems to go insane rather than believably becoming a kinder person.
So, what does this all mean for the Christmas spirit (in the abstract, rather than literal sense)? Does Scrooged subvert its traditional source material, or does it reinforce its values? In the end, I think we have to say it does the latter, even if Cross’s constant drinking of spirits (that word sure has a lot of meanings) suggests that the visitations are dreams or hallucinations rather than Christmas magic. But perhaps that doesn’t matter. Perhaps the true magic comes in the redemption, no matter how it is achieved. And Scrooged, even if it sacrifices some of the force of emotion in that redemption in favour of humour, still comes to the same resolution as every other version of A Christmas Carol; Dickens’s heart-warming Christmas masterpiece proving, in this case at least, immune to comedic subversion.
At time of writing, Scrooged is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.