“It was obviously intended as a comedy, but there is little comic about it, and indeed the movie’s overriding emotions seem to be pain and anger. This entire production seems to be in dire need of visits from the ghosts of Christmas,” the late great Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the 1988 holiday film, Scrooged. Calling the film “disquieting” and “unsettling,” Ebert left no confusion as to his opinion of the movie, giving it one star.
Whatever the famed Chicago critic’s views, Scrooged went on to secure holiday favorite status and will no doubt soon be in semi-constant rotation along with Gen X classics like A Christmas Story and more recent hits like Love Actually. If not quite as ubiquitous as TBS’s annual marathon workhorse, Scrooged occasionally returns to the big screen during the season (at least one theater in Atlanta is showing it) and it will see repeated airings on ABC Family this year.
Starring the indomitable Bill Murray, Scrooged reenacts the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, with tyrannical TV executive Frank Cross filling the role of the famous main character, Ebenezer Scrooge. Visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Cross emerges a new man, ultimately reaching out to his estranged family and others through a deranged live broadcast of (yes, how very meta) A Christmas Carol. Ironically, with recent live television productions of Peter Pan and The Sound of Music, the conceit actually seems more plausible today than it might have a quarter century ago.
Looking back, Murray’s striver Cross serves as an analog to Jim Carrey’s downwardly mobile Ernie “Chip” Douglas from the 1996 film The Cable Guy. Raised by television, both men absorb its images and meanings, but one (Douglas) tries awkwardly and discomfortingly to make friends, while the other (Cross) eschews all human connections for a chance to attain a media fiefdom.
Chip and Frank end up working in the industry that meant so much to them as children. Douglas labors on the technical/trade side as a cable installer and Cross, in the upper echelons of management; Frank makes the very product Chip delivers to his customers. Television shapes the childhood Cross, who dives into its programming as respite from a father who gives him five lbs of veal for Christmas and a mother who would rather be anywhere else. Throughout the movie he demonstrates his command of television sitcoms and dramas—the pink triangle on 1980s and 90s Trivial Pursuit Boards, which always seemed to ask about shows from the 1950s and 60s, would have been Cross’s playground. Half the time he can’t even differentiate between scripted television and his own personal history.
In some ways, Murray looks like a natural fit for the role of Scrooge—an acerbic edge that has always been a big part of Murray’s comic persona, appearing to a greater or lesser degree depending on the role. (This year’s soppy St. Vincent being a perfect example of Murray playing both bitter and sweet, but more the latter.) The character of Frank Cross gives him an opportunity to indulge his misanthropic instincts to the max, especially in the early scenes that establish Scrooge’s miserly hard-heartedness. This is the Murray of Ghostbusters, the sarcastic smart-aleck who you can’t help but like but also fear might put you down with a cutting remark at a party. When he encounters Death aka The Ghost of Christmas Future, Murray objects to his guest’s sense of space: “Hey back off big man. That might work with the chicks but not me.” When he douses a man he incorrectly believes to be on fire, he quips: “I’m sorry I thought you were Richard Pryor.” Outside a shelter run by the movie’s love interest (Karen Allen), he balks at giving a handout, telling the homeless man, “Herman, I blew it all on ‘ludes.”
As Shannon Harvey of Australia’s Sunday Times put it, “Bill Murray as Scrooge? Now that’s perfect casting!”
Scrooged turned out to be a little less corny and sentimental than we might have expected, given that 26 years have passed since its original release and a lot of childhood classics don’t weather well with age. Indeed, a number of critics noted the film’s darker undercurrents, whether approvingly or disapprovingly. Where Ebert found discordant notes of “pain and anger,” Chuck O’Leary of FulvueDrive-in.com applauded the film’s irreverence and its “sardonic edge.” Like the original Christmas Carol, Scrooged plays out in an unfair world where the rich run roughshod over the poor, and it carries Dickens’s industrial-era parable about inequality into a very 1980s context of cold, urban cynicism.
Indeed, Frank Cross may be Scrooge, but he is one drop in a sea of assholes in Gordon Gekko’s New York. Sure, there is Alfre Woodard as Cross’s assistant—the nobly suffering Bob Cratchit character—and Bobcat Goldthwait as a mousy nebbish who speaks up about the amoral crassness of Cross’s programming ideas only to get summarily canned on Christmas Eve. Even the surnames of the characters seem to convey their status in a blunt and slightly hamfisted way: “Cross” connotes something sharp or angry (there’s a sign in Frank’s office that says, “Cross—a thing they nail people to,” a wonderfully incongruent sentiment for Christmas time), while the put-upon servant Woodard is a “Cooley” and Goldthwait is “Loudermilk,” which evokes “milquetoast” while simultaneously mocking his unassertive, weak-sister role.
But Cross exists in a cutthroat world of broadcast television that is prepared to trample on good taste and tradition for a quick buck, and he operates within an industry of people who are all too willing to let him do so. (It’s like A Christmas Carol meets Wall Street and Network—another reason why its satire continues to ring true today.) One bigwig encourages Cross to think about slanting his programming to pets—“I have a study that says cats and dogs are starting to watch television”—which means Cross ought to put more dangling strings into his TV shows (!). And Cross may be a shark himself, but he can see all too well that the higher-ups have brought in a consultant (John Glover) who aims to make him redundant. The slimy, self-serving consultant is a great trope of the 1980s, when everyone from Murray’s ruthless executive to the carefree gang at WKRP in Cincinnati feared having their jobs yanked from them by Romneyan interlopers. Glover’s consultant is the kind of guy who orders “a California health plate, no dairy” at a restaurant—a clear signal that he is, indeed, yuppie scum.
Then again, Cross is a guy who makes his assistant work on Christmas Eve when she needs to take her mute son (the Tiny Tim character) to a doctor, and makes out a list of Christmas gift recipients by callously deciding who gets towels and who gets an awesome new VCR. (This was 1988.) There is plenty of Eighties kitsch in the movie, including Cross’s compulsive habit of making Tab/vodka cocktails, which we presume is meant to be another signal of his poor character.
Still, its satire and darkness notwithstanding, Scrooged ultimately has to fall back on a redemptive narrative of a miser having his heart melted. Murray’s unfeeling character suits the actor well, but his sudden about-face at the end, when he steps on to live TV to implore audiences to value family over more materialistic concerns, does not feel quite right. (Then again, the jarring epiphany of the Scrooge character has always seemed a little implausible—a bit of moral instruction and wishful thinking on Dickens’s part.) Murray’s passionate and largely improvised monologue at the end has won plaudits over the years, but the cynic’s effusion of Christmas cheer does not quite sit right when moments earlier he was about as sentimental as Faye Dunaway’s wonderfully icy Diane Christensen.
In retrospect, the final ten minutes feel like a mix of Murray’s performance history and the work that would revive his career in the 1990s. The outburst encapsulates the Murray of Christmas Past (SNL’s Nick the Lounge Singer), then-Present Murray, (Ghostbusters’ Dr. Peter Venkman), and Future Murray (Ernie “Big Ern” McCracken of Kingpin, with a dash of Groundhog Day’s Phil Connors, who incidentally also worked in television). This helps to explain the widely divergent views one finds in reviews from 1988, such as Ebert’s, which wonders aloud about Murray’s state of mind:
This sequence is the strangest in the film. The words are there, but the heart is lacking. Murray stands center stage and rants and raves about the spirit of Christmas, but it’s not an inspiring speech and certainly not a funny one. It sounds more desperate than anything else, and it continues at embarrassing length. It looks like an on-screen breakdown.
Compare this view with that of The Dissolve’s Nathan Rabin, who describes the same scene as “unexpectedly moving to see this chilliest of customers break down, lose his cool, and give himself over to the Christmas spirit. It’s a moment made effective by the notes of genuine terror and confusion Murray brings to the scene.”
For Ebert at the time, Murray had yet to prove he could pull off more dramatic and nuanced performances. Today Murray might be regarded as the funniest, most profound hipster ever; he crashes bachelor parties providing marriage advice (he’s twice divorced), calls up Kelly Lynch and her husband every time Roadhouse is on to remind them of her famous sex scene with Patrick Swayze, and doesn’t have an agent but instead a phone number where you can leave messages and hope you interest him enough that he’ll call back. In 1988, though, he was just a funny hipster.
Ebert, who credited Murray as a superb comedic talent, faulted the actor’s first crack at drama in 1984’s The Razor’s Edge. Murray played the hero “as if fate is a comedian and he is the straight man.” The New York Times’s Janet Maslin took a more nuanced view, describing the performance as “both jokey and anachronistic, and the Parisian setting is little more than an excuse for him to show up in a beret,” but also allowing that the film had problems. For all his “wisecracking inappropriateness,” Murray remained the only thing holding the film together. Even Rabin conceded, the role fit him like an “older sibling’s outsized clothing.”
Today we have Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers, Rushmore and numerous other Wes Anderson films, and who knows what else in the works. Scrooge’s final scene represents Murray just beginning to bust out into new cinematic territory. Then again, a 2006 review by TimeOut London reveals that for some viewers, no amount of Murray then or now, could save the film: “Scrooged is not subtle stuff, and since Murray’s comic persona is uniquely hands-off in terms of emotion, his final impassioned speech about the true meaning of Christmas is as embarrassing as Chaplin’s at the end of The Great Dictator.” Still, getting compared to world-historical comic genius/pioneer Charlie Chaplin can’t be that bad of a Christmas present, right? Even for a 1980s Manhattan yuppie-Scrooge douchebag.