Thursday, December 27, 2018

Review: Scrooged (1988)

Scrooged (1988)

Rated PG-13

Score: 3 out of 5

Scrooged is a movie that left me with very conflicted feelings after I watched it. At various points a straightforward modernization of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, a post-modern meta parody thereof, and a satire of television and the commercialization of Christmas, among various other beats, it's an anarchic film that tries to hit upon several major subjects at once and doesn't quite stick the landing. It's a film that critics disliked but was nevertheless a hit with audiences who elevated it into an "alternative" Christmas movie, going on to become a legitimate holiday classic, and seeing it for myself, I can't help but agree with many of the complaints that the critics initially had with it. It's messy, it swings wildly in mood, and it's weighed down by a repulsively unlikable protagonist whose redemption arc felt hollow. And yet, I also see why audiences liked it, as it is, if nothing else, a highly propulsive movie that never once bored me, even if it got on my nerves a bit too much. Bill Murray's character here may be a shining example of how not to use the actor in a film, but he's still Bill Murray at the height of his career, bringing a madcap energy to his take on Ebenezer Scrooge as the modern-day boss from hell, all while the visual design, production values, and snark at modern television carry the film even when I couldn't get behind his character. Scrooged is a barely-functional film that only really comes together at the end, but it's still a fun watch for those who are bored with the more conventionally heartwarming holiday tales.

The Scrooge figure here is Frank Cross, the president of the television network IBC who is putting on a live TV adaptation of A Christmas Carol, boasting such spectacles as the Solid Gold Dancers, simulcasts from New York, West Berlin, and the Great Barrier Reef, Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim, and an ad campaign designed to scare people into watching it. (When that ad gives an elderly woman a fatal heart attack, Frank decides to air it even more, because there's no such thing as bad publicity.) He treats those under him like crap, firing the executive Eliot Loudermilk for disagreeing with him and sending his secretary Grace and his own brother James monogrammed IBC towels for Christmas. Naturally, and blissfully unaware of just how much his network's Christmas special is reflected in his own life, Frank is a perfect recipient for a visit from the ghosts of Christmas, first his former boss Lew Hayward in the Jacob Marley role and later a taxi-driving Ghost of Christmas Past, a loud-mouthed fairy of a Ghost of Christmas Present, and finally, an intimidating Grim Reaper as the Ghost of Christmas Future. What follows is a typical Christmas Carol story, as we see how Frank ruined his relationship with his wife Claire, how his mistreatment of his underlings at the office is destroying their lives, and how nobody is going to miss him when he dies.

At its core, this film suffers from an identity crisis. On one hand, it wants to be a fairly straightforward modernization of A Christmas Carol, Frank's character arc played mostly straight as he realizes what a jerk he's been, but on the other, it also wants to be a farcical spoof of such, with Frank's character flaws played for laughs as a comical exaggeration of an '80s yuppie asshole who mistreats people just because he can. For much of the film, Frank is a one-dimensional character who seems actively resistant to growing as a person up until the end, ignoring the epiphanies offered to him by the Ghost of Christmas Past and only seeming mildly shaken by the Ghost of Christmas Present, still acting like a greedy bastard even as one of his decisions earlier in the movie comes back to bite him. What the Ghost of Christmas Future shows him doesn't seem any more shocking than what the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present did, so it seems odd that that would be what triggers his epiphany. The result was an indecisive parody that remained stuck in an awkward twilight zone between whether to play the story straight (albeit with jokes) or as a sendup, and wound up going for both without much effort put into combining the two into something cohesive. The ads for this movie often evoked Ghostbusters as another movie where Bill Murray was confronted by ghosts, but what made Ghostbusters work was that, even though it was a comedy, it took the central story seriously and had the comedy be driven by the characters' reactions. We get some of that here, but at the same time, it also wants to play the story itself for laughs. Frank's redemption at the end made for a good scene on its own, but it felt unearned in the context of the film, as Frank spent most of it acting like an abrasive prick. Bill Murray's normally great at playing these sorts of smarmy comedy protagonists, but he felt misused here. Either we could've had a straightforward, crowd-pleasing comedy about Frank learning the true meaning of Christmas, or we could've had a cynical satire in which he refuses to listen to them and learns nothing. The film wants to be both, but in trying to be so, it pulls itself in two opposite directions that ultimately tear it apart.

So why am I giving this a 3 out of 5? Because, despite its enormous central fault, virtually everything built up around it works. While I wouldn't call this one of Murray's best performances by a long shot, when he is allowed to just be funny, he is funny as the exaggerated corporate fat cat. If anybody else played Frank Cross, he would be completely insufferable with his near-constant shouting at everybody around him, but with Murray in the role, he's a character you love to hate up until the moment where it's time to genuinely love him. The final ten minutes or so especially, the most important part of any adaptation of A Christmas Carol, saved the movie in my opinion, and it largely came down to Murray selling the (pun very much intended) absolute dickens out of it. The supporting cast too was more or less solid, with only a handful of weak links. While Carol Kane's Ghost of Christmas Present was often grating with her childlike voice and zany-for-their-own-sake antics, David Johansen easily made up for her, playing the Ghost of Christmas Past as a chain-smoking, off-his-meds lunatic. Karen Allen and Alfre Woodard did great jobs conveying the hurt that Frank had callously inflicted on them, Allen's Claire through their tattered relationship and Woodard's Grace through her struggles raising a family, and while Bobcat Goldthwait's Eliot was played more for broad farce, I still believed him as a guy who was at his breaking point and only needed Frank to push him over the edge. The effects were used sparingly, but effectively, most notably on a genuinely horrifying Ghost of Christmas Future, whose TV-screen face made for a great reflection of the job in television that had turned Frank into such a prick. Combine them with a solid Danny Elfman score, and you have what often feels like a prototype for a Tim Burton movie, albeit set in the city rather than his usual suburban stomping grounds; Richard Donner's background with Superman: The Movie and Lethal Weapon suited him well to creating a fantastical, over-the-top urban setting that still felt like it could really exist. And while most of this film's jabs at the television industry may have been lifted wholesale from Network, playing them for big belly laughs rather than dark, cutting satire kept them from feeling like a ripoff, giving them a different spin that went well with the film's festive cheer.

The Bottom Line

It barely works and barely holds up, but it does work on at least some level as a modern-day take on Dickens' classic. See it for Bill Murray and the jokes, but don't expect much real depth beyond that.

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