Reviewer's Note 2014: Years ago, the last part of this review was somehow lost (formatting?), and I had forgotten all about it. But thanks to reader Simon Carless, he linked up the archived review. It's a Christmas miracle, thanks to you, Simon!
One of my favorite Christmas movies...but there's nothing new to see here with this DVD edition--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 percent wrong for that part). Taking four years off (with the exception of a brief cameo in Frank Oz's 1986 musical remake of Little Shop of Horrors) may as well have been "forever" when your stock and trade is the smart-assed, cynical youth market. They have a tendency to move on. Murray was still years away from achieving his reinvented persona of the seriously-talented "serious" actor inside the hipster jokester, so when the big, lumbering, expensive Scrooged came out in '88, Murray's sell-by date was already a drag on the box office (even the highly-anticipated Ghostbusters II the next year seriously underperformed). Scrooged's misguided ad campaign didn't help, either, linking an unflattering "vanity project" image of Murray with an implied Ghostbusters connection (the skeletal hand lighting his cigar...which doesn't happen in the film), a connection that doesn't quite play out in the film (the special effects are smooth, but they don't dominate the story, nor do they overwhelm, as they did in Ghostbusters). So audiences wanting Ebenezer Meets Slimer didn't get what they expected (producing tepid word-of-mouth, as evidenced by the film's b.o. drop-off after an initial big weekend), and audiences who had had enough of Murray (or had forgotten about him), stayed away in sufficient numbers to keep the film squarely in the red, despite a seemingly respectable $60 million gross (particularly when everyone was expecting a $200 million-plus gross along the lines of Murray's Ghostbusters.
As for the film's central theme--greed is bad, and "getting involved" is good--it's always problematic to preach to an audience about the evils of money and the joys of good works from the pulpit of a big, shiny, expensive Hollywood film designed to deliver residual checks to millionaires (Donner's ham-fisted placements of "Free South Africa" posters and stickers throughout the frames is particularly annoying). But Dickens' A Christmas Carol is almost impossible to screw up--perhaps the most malleable short story in the English language and one that has survived countless adaptations with its message still strong and intact--and Scrooged is no different. The message of Christian redemption through epiphany is successful here, regardless of tone variations and vulgar or slapstick content. Certainly some aspects of the adaptation from Dickens' original are hit and miss. Splitting the Bob Cratchet character between Eliot Loudermilk and Grace, Cross' secretary, Goldthwait's take on a drunken, murderous Elmer Fudd scores big laughs over Woodard's sweet but ultimately beside-the-point Grace (her autistic child/Tiny Tim crossover doesn't work at all, while neither Grace nor Eliot express any kindness or understanding for Frank when he's at his worst towards them--a critical miscalculation of the Dickens story that robs their subplots of one of the story's main points: Christian forgiveness). That forgiving quality is captured in the scenes featuring Bill Murray's real-life brother John, playing Frank's on-screen brother James, and those moments are quite successful for that faithfulness to Dickens' intentions (John Murray has a natural, unaffected demeanor here that plays nicely off Bill Murray's outsized abrasiveness). And surprisingly, transforming what is a minor character in the original story--an old love of Ebenezer's--into Karen Allen's social worker Claire, works, too, mainly on the strength of the incandescent Allen's performance (her scenes with Murray show Murray at his quirkily romantic best, and she's obviously enjoying his turn--listen to her delighted, real laughs at Murray's funny ad-libs).
Luckily, Scrooged has lots of memorably funny lines and amusing set pieces to smooth over the sometimes choppy editing and story construction. The large-scale "cold" opening of the assault on Santa's workshop, only to be revealed as a promo for an upcoming IBC program, The Night the Reindeer Died ("At 7:00, psychos seize Santa's workshop!"), may be the film's funniest sequence, with a Vietnam-flavored Santa who screams, "Incoming!" as in-bound mortar shells fall at the North Pole, and who declares, when offered a chance to slip out the back way, "This is one Santa that's goin' out the front door." (Lee Majors is a good sport spoofing himself here, getting off a great triple-take at Santa when the big man momentarily stops the counterattack to declare, "And Lee..you've been a real good boy this year!"). Cross' own ad for his live Scrooge spectacular is amusing, as visions of the Apocalypse are shown MTV-style as the announcer ominously intones, "Acid rain. Drug addiction. International terrorism. Freeway killers. Now, more than ever, it's important to remember the true meaning of Christmas." Mitchum is typically hilarious in his few scenes discussing future programming for "pet appeal"...before later viciously kicking a cat like a soccer ball. Murray's, "Bye, bye, Grandma!" is a family favorite around the Mavis household, as Murray steals a package-laden woman's cab, waving and flipping her off as she screams, "You sonavabitch you should rot in hell!" (that throwaway scene suggests a far different tone Scrooged could have achieved). John Forsythe is super-smooth even as a revolting, rotting corpse/mummy, visiting the disbelieving Murray in his office, who promptly blasts the corpse six times with a revolver, prompting Forsythe to quip, "I don't mind you hitting me, Frank, but take it easy on the Bacardi." Murray's totally superfluous imitation of Richard Burton in Cleopatra is another highlight, while Carol Kane's entire sequence as the Ghost of Christmas Present plays like a Three Stooges short with a million dollar budget. Murray's and Kane's violent interplay is an absolute delight (watch Murray's look of horror and disgust when she burbles, "You know I like the rough stuff, Frank"), and their mean, vicious slapstick generate the film's biggest laughs (you won't hear "That bitch hit me with a toaster," in any other Christmas Carol adaptation, that's for sure).
As for the most controversial scene in the film--the ending, where Murray effectively halts the movie and pitches a long message about Christmas--I've always felt it was quite daring. Cynical critics despised this wrap-up (I remember Ebert's nasty take on it...to his credit, at least he watched this movie all the way through before panning it...), but it comes off as a brave move to take a massive machine like a $40 million dollar Hollywood Christmas movie and essentially throw out a conventional ending to have its star deliver an impassioned sermon on the "Christmas miracle." Calling it "manipulative" and "cynical" as some critics did, I don't see how the filmmakers could have felt that same way, knowing it was a gamble to deviate from a "manipulative," "cynical" formula that might have guaranteed big money at the box office: substituting Murray's rant for a big, safe, special-effects laden ending that would have given the audience what they were expecting. As such, this sermon came as a big surprise to me when I first saw Scrooged, and having now watched it several times, I'm always impressed by Murray's genuine, impassioned sincerity. Now...is he playing us for fools with this "act," as the perverse trickster Murray has so often done in the past? Perhaps. And if so, then a good joke on us. But the message he delivers is true--it's never too late to change, no matter who you are, or what you've done--and it's stronger than any potential goof perpetrated on us. And most importantly, at least to these eyes, Murray looks like he really believes that message, too.
If you already have the 1999 DVD release of Scrooged...it's the exact same anamorphically-enhanced, 1.85:1 transfer here, right down to the same lettering and date on the disc itself. Even though this is a ten-year old transfer, the movie benefited from the razor-sharp, expensive cinematography of Michael Chapman, so the film still looks fairly decent here. No restoration, unfortunately, so you will see some print damage (minor scratches and dirt, particularly over the Paramount mountain logo), but the colors are holding, the black are fair, and the image is quite sharp, considering the age of the transfer (I did scene-to-scene comparisons to my old disc, to verify it's the same transfer. No difference).
There's a healthy Dolby Digital English 5.1 Surround audio mix available that works well during the few big special effects sequences (English and French 2.0 audio options are also available). Recording levels are loud and crisp, with decent-enough separation effects. English subtitles are included.
Just an original trailer is included. Too bad somebody at Paramount didn't snag someone...like me...to do a commentary track. There's enough interest in this title; some tasty extras might have spurred stronger sales.
An at-times mean-spirited, vulgar, slapstick take on Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Scrooged is also surprisingly thoughtful and even touching, with a message from Dickens that still survives all adaptations, misguided or well-intentioned. Bill Murray goes for broke as vicious, paranoid, and ultimately sad Frank Cross, and he's quite good (particularly during his heart-felt redemption fade-out), along with his strong supporting cast. Plenty of big laughs with the one-liners and set pieces, too. If you already have the previous DVD release, there's no need to pick this one up (unless you like the more Christmasy look to the packaging...to which I would say you have some serious problems), but if you're new to the movie, or you're looking for a fun gift for someone this Christmas who appreciates a warped take on the holiday, I highly recommend Scrooged.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.