In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge saw no profit in Christmas. How quaint this notion has become. In the 21st Century, Scrooge would have a field day; taking advantage of the innumerable ways to make a quick buck off the festive season and sap sentimental suckers for everything that they have. If Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in this day and age, Scrooge would not be ignoring Christmas but instead working to subvert it. In fact, Dickens might have written something like 1988’s Scrooged; a greed-isn’t-good modernisation of the Dickens classic. It may have been produced in the 1980s (and is thus dated in terms of fashion and technology references), but the morals of this particular retelling are nonetheless relevant in the 21st Century. Treatments of A Christmas Carol do not get more quirky, darkly humorous or memorable than Scrooged, which is perhaps a textbook example of how to update old source material in a successful way.
A witty satire of television in the vein of Network, Scrooged introduces Frank Cross (Murray), who is the youngest president in the history of television. Frank is also a total jerk; a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge whose soullessness is apparent to all of his employees who are terrified of his capricious temper. Christmas is approaching, and Frank’s holiday programming includes action movies like The Night the Reindeer Died. But the pièce de résistance is a multi-million dollar adaptation of A Christmas Carol that will air live on Christmas Eve. Frank will get his comeuppance the Dickens way, however. He receives a visit from his long-dead former boss (Forsythe) who warns Frank that he will be visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve – the Ghost of Christmas Past (Johansen), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Kane), and the Ghost of Christmas Future. Suffice it to say, what ensues is a weird and wacky trip through Frank’s life, loves (namely the one that got away, played by Karen Allen) and choices as he discovers the true meaning of Christmas.
It was only a matter of time before A Christmas Carol was modernised for contemporary viewers. Luckily, Scrooged is fresh, ingenious, black and hilarious. Instead of repeating old traditions (the source material has been adapted for countless movies, after all), the filmmakers behind Scrooged tried something new and pulled it off with aplomb. The dark storyline was transformed into a darkly humorous comedy whilst still retaining the signature plot points as well as the message “Do unto others as you would expect them to do unto you“. It’s refreshing to see that a bunch of filmmakers were able to accomplish something special with source material that’s as old as the hills. Granted, Scrooged does not reach its full potential due to a few rocky patches and the PG-13 rating which neuters the content, but the laughs, the charm and the touching scenes compensate for this. Unfortunately, upon its release in 1988, the movie did not make nearly enough money to break even by Hollywood accounting standards, and the critics were dismissive. In the years to follow, though, Scrooged amassed a minor, loyal cult following and it now has its devoted fans who watch it every Christmas.
Scrooged was directed by action-comedy specialist Richard Donner, of all unlikely people. Even more unlikely is that this film nestles into his résumé directly between Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 2. Yet, the most unlikely thing of all is that the film works not just as a comic revision of Dickens’ story but also as a Richard Donner picture. A number of impressive special effects are scattered throughout the movie, and Donner maintained a brisk pace from beginning to end. By no means is this the definitive retelling of the tale, but it is an excellent ’80s high-concept comedy (and there were lots of high-concept comedies during the 1980s). Thanks to Donner’s deft directorial touch, Scrooged is a tremendously entertaining flick. Even the mawkish finale feels earned and genuine rather than forced and trite.
Bill Murray clearly had a blast playing the character of Frank Cross. The guy is a genius no matter what movie he’s in, and he dominated this film with his loud and maniacal performance. Murray has always possessed the ability to exude a combination of smarm, demented charisma and impudence, and he was therefore perfect for a 20th Century Scrooge. Everything he says appears completely natural, and Murray was able to fire off a bunch of brilliant one-liners to great effect. The rest of the cast is very impressive, including Karen Allen as Frank’s former love, Robert Mitchum as an aging executive, Carol Kane and David Johansen as ghosts, and many others. The hilarious Bobcat Goldthwait is a particular standout as an employee who gets laid off. Scrooged is littered with cameos, as well – even Miles Davis and Paul Shaffer are in the film among some buskers on a street corner. Bill Murray’s actor brothers also appear here – Brian Doyle-Murray plays Frank’s father, John Murray appears as Frank’s brother, and Joel Murray plays a party guest.
When it comes to Christmas movies, we all have our favourites. There are the traditionalists who prefer It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street (the original), while others prefer modern-day classics like A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and Scrooged. It’s not the greatest Christmas movie of all time, butScrooged remains a perfectly entertaining yuletide comedy – a fine relic of a bygone age when comedies could enjoy top-notch production values and conceptual richness; traits which are now largely reserved for summer blockbusters. Scrooged is highly entertaining, is full of humour, boasts a terrific performance courtesy of Bill Murray, and represents a successful modern update of A Christmas Carol that retains the moral message.