Nothing new to see here--move along. Paramount slapped a faux-window pane slipcover on their old 1999 disc transfer of Scrooged...and called it a day. The artwork on the hardcase cover has been tweaked a bit (the skeleton arm wears a red Santa sleeve now, and Murray's face has been blown-out), but that's the only thing different with this release: no new extras, and no new transfer (strangely, the artwork you see immediately to the right is the old 1999 release. Amazon doesn't have a listing yet for this particular repackaging...). The expensive, special effects-laden Scrooged didn't make nearly enough money back in 1988 to break even (at least by Hollywood accounting standards), and critics certainly grumbled at Bill Murray's return to the big screen. However, this herky-jerky, sometimes touching, often amusing updating of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol seems to have found a minor (if loyal) following with its repeated cable showings during the Christmas seasons, so Paramount must be thinking there's a new market out there for this repackaging.
The youngest network president in television history, IBC's Francis "Frank" Xavier Cross (Bill Murray) will stop at nothing to "own" Christmas in the Nielsen ratings. Banking his job and the network's reputation on a $40 million dollar live satellite production of Dickens' classic, Scrooge (starring...Buddy Hackett), the sadistic, egocentric, wildly mercurial Cross isn't happy with the namby-pamby spots developed by his junior executives to promote the Christmas extravaganza...nor does he like his own violent, blood-soaked ad for the show denigrated by schlub Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait), whom Cross promptly cans for his unasked-for opinions. Cross' put-upon secretary, Grace (Alfre Woodard), is horrified that Cross would do such a thing at Christmastime (she has her own problems, including rotten pay from Cross and a child who won't speak, slipping away into his own world). But the gleeful, oblivious Cross ignores her, focusing only the upcoming special (which includes LeRoy Neiman painting the Berlin Wall, and the Pontiff baptizing the entire Zulu Nation), and his own career trajectory. That rise to the top, though, is threatened by the network's screwball owner, Preston Rhinelander (Robert Mitchum), who hires unctuous "L.A. slimeball" Brice Cummings (John Glover) as Cross' assistant--an unwanted move that puts the already paranoid Cross into apoplexies of rage and fear. So imagine the reality check Frank experiences when he's visited by the mummified ghost of his former boss, Lew Hayward (John Forsythe), who warns Frank that he'll be visited by three more ghosts on Christmas Eve, and that Frank had better start concerning himself with mankind--as Frank's old flame, Claire (Karen Allen), has made a life out of doing--or face the terrifying consequences.
I can distinctly remember going to see a matinee performance of Scrooged on a huge multiplex screen a few weeks before Christmas back in '88, where it was playing to a pin-drop quiet, completely empty theater...and thinking to myself as I walked down the long, long aisle, "Uh, oh, what did I just buy a ticket to?" I've seen the film at least ten times since then (my kids demand it right after Thanksgiving dinner), enjoying it much more on TV than I did in the theatre (it's hard to have a lot of fun watching a comedy alone in an empty airplane hangar). But I can see why it didn't quite take off with audiences and critics the way Paramount was expecting it to (who no doubt were expecting a Ghostbusters-sized blockbuster). I remember the critics particularly taking a dislike to the tone of the movie, calling it "mean-spirited" and "nasty"--a strange charge for a film version of A Christmas Carol that demands Scrooge be mean-spirited and nasty to make his spiritual conversion all the more pronounced (they seemed to have missed the many scenes in Scrooged that show genuine tenderness and sadness, too, like Murray's wonderfully evocative trip back to his lonely, TV-saturated childhood). More to the point: didn't they see that this Christmas Carol was a Saturday Night Live adaptation, at least in spirit, considering the participation of Murray and co-writer Michael "I'd like to feed your fingers to the wolverines" O'Donoghue? They were maybe expecting Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm? Of course this Scrooged is going to be cruel and violent--and more the welcome for that change-up, considering "respectful" adaptations of the innumerably-filmed short story obviously dominate (my favorite remains The Odd Couple version, where "Ebenezer Madison" wishes "fat creep" Santa to be eaten by his reindeer, as well as his desire to beat the wings off a sugar plum fairy with a giant candy cane--violent notions, perhaps, after O'Donoghue's own heart). I've always wondered if Scrooged would have received a far better critical reception had it been released as an "R," skewing more towards the rougher Caddyshack territory rather than the family-friendlier Ghostbusters (certainly O'Donoghue would have agreed; he disavowed this PG-13 version of his screenplay). Perhaps it was the choice of director, as well. If I wanted to shoot a hip, cynical, foul version of Dickens' classic, I wouldn't hire Superman's laid-back, genial Richard Donner as the helmer. He's there to insure a safe handling of the huge budget and the special effects (reportedly close to 40 million, at bottom line costs, not including the promotional buy--a very hefty sum back in '88). At those prices, he's not going to deliver another Mr. Mike's Mondo Video.
Audiences paying good money to go to a theater have traditionally had a hair-trigger aversion for Christmas-themed movies that skew more negative than positive, so Scrooged was automatically going to be a harder sell than say, Home Alone (that's why Scrooged has fared better on TV than it did at the box office; TV audiences looking for a Christmas movie will watch anything, negative or positive, as long as it's on while they wrap presents). And it's important to remember, too, that by 1988, Bill Murray had already hit his popularity peak four years earlier with 1984's Ghostbusters, only to disappear from screens after the utter critical and box-office failure of his first dramatic role in his personally-shepherded version of Maugham's The Razor's Edge (unfortunately, Murray was 180
Reviewer's note, 12.22.13: Gee...I wonder what the hell happened to the rest of my review, DVDTalk....