A slick, cobbled-together Christmas product from 1989, Scrooged was a big hit and seems to have become a Xmas perennial, despite it being a rather uneven affair. Getting Bill Murray ‘back amongst the ghosts’ seems to have been the main post-Ghostbusters selling point, but creating a post-modern version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol about a Scrooge-like tv exec creating a post-modern version of A Christmas Carol for television throws up some obvious hall-of-mirrors issues which are not entirely resolved in Richard Donner’s energetic film.
Murray plays Frank Cross, a cultural mastermind with some obvious similarities of Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels; his main Scrooge-ness is expecting his cast and crew to work on a live show on Christmas Eve. He fires Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait), who returns with a shotgun to take revenge on his boss. In the meantime, various spectres visit Cross, showing him the error of his choice of career over love with joint-smoking Karen Allen, his wrongful neglect of his employees including Alfre Woodward, and his own death. Cross gets both the medium and the message, and disrupts his own live tv spectacle with a Howard Beale/Network-style rant about the meaning of Christmas while Loudermilk holds the tv control room at gunpoint; all very festive.
Scrooged has some funny material buried in the familiar plot mechanics; Robert Mitchum turns us as an executive who wants to put subliminal advertising for dogs and cats into all his shows, and the notion of stapling antlers to mice is still funny today. But the problem here is Murray, off-screen for four years previously, and encouraged to mug in a way that’s the opposite of his deadpan beat in Ghostbusters. Murray’s Scrooge is too wired to land, too aggressive and self-centred to seem passionate towards others; the sentimental scenes of Cross visiting a homeless shelter, and his own family, don’t quite fit with the cynicism of the biting tv satire. There’s drugs, nudity, violence, and the unseasonally abrasive presence of Buster Poindexter aka David Johansen from the New York Dolls as the Ghost of Christmas Past, but Scrooged isn’t hard-edged enough for adults, and yet seems too worldly for kids.
There’s a slew of good moments here, notably Carol Kane as a fairy with a penchant for beatings, and it’s easy to see why this rather unlikable film has become a festive staple. But Scrooged feels like an unhappy brew of ideas which didn’t quite gel; Cross’s version of the story doesn’t seem half as strange or eccentric as the one that Donner and Murray are offering. yet even if Scrooged’s Xmas content is a little shonky, it just about deserves its place in the annual Christmas canon.