Christmas: Scrooged (1988)

Scrooged is one of those Christmas films that runs counter to everything the season ought to be about. It supposedly champions redemption and human connection while displaying contempt for such affection at every turn. It’s inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but it plays like it was written by someone who never read the book or never understood one iota of its moral lesson. Bill Murray is a funny guy, but he does nothing but mug for the film’s entire 100 minutes. There’s nothing to recommend Scrooged. It’s sour, stupid, and humourless.

Bill Murray stars as Frank Cross, a modern-day Scrooge who runs the popular television network IBC and plans to air a live-taping of A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve. He doesn’t hold the Christmas season in any special regard, so he doesn’t care about forcing his employees to air a live-TV special on Christmas Eve instead of spending time with friends and family. The film spends the first 20 minutes cataloguing Frank’s nastiness—how he sends his only brother a company towel for a Christmas present and fires the only employee willing to stand up for his own ideas—before having the ghosts show up (here depicted as eccentric screwballs) and announce they’re going to get Frank to repent and begin to embrace the Christmas spirit.

Soon enough, Frank is reconnecting with an old girlfriend (Karen Allen, who is always a delight, but is given absolutely nothing to do here besides smile her beaming smile) and preaching goodwill towards men, but none of it is convincing. The only thing that’s convincing is Frank’s fear when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him his casket burning at his own cremation. In A Christmas Carol you get the sense that it’s not the fear of death, but the fear of a wasted life, that drives Scrooge to repent and try for goodness. In Scrooged, you get the sense that Frank is merely trying to save his own ass, practicing goodness for selfish reasons—chalking up brownie points on the cosmic scorecard, so as to beat dying in middle age. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

As well, director Richard Donner, best known for Superman and the Lethal Weapon movies, doesn’t fit the material. Donner’s known for his clean, energetic camera movements and his dependable studio storytelling, but he’s neither an emotionally sensitive or a broadly funny director—both things needed for a Christmas comedy. Any humour he trades in is a result of the anarchy he captures on-screen, usually provided by an unhinged Mel Gibson as in the Lethal Weapon films, but here his direction doesn’t do Murray’s rambling comic style any favours.

The film’s only funny component is Robert Mitchum as a TV executive who believes the network ought to tailor their programming to people’s pets since cats and dogs often stare at the television screen anyway and the network could use more viewers. Mitchum, being one of the coolest actors of all time, is far too good to be in Scrooged, but he does give it its one genuine measure of humour in the scene when he explains to Murray, in his stoic deadpan, that they’ll be fostering a captive audience 20 years down the line. Everything else in Scrooged is devoid of even this small modicum of wit.

Bill Murray fans may be tempted to put this film on during the holiday season, but don’t fall prey to its false promise. It’s not funny and Murray has rarely been worse. Families would be better served watching the fireplace channel than queuing this film up on Christmas Eve.

3 out of 10

Scrooged (1988, USA)

Directed by Richard Donner; written by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens; starring Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, Bobcat Goldthwait, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, Michael J. Pollard, Alfre Woodard, and John Glover.