Directed by Richard Donner
Written by Mitch Glazer, Michael O'Donoghue, and Bill Murray (based on the novella A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)
The assumption would be that, by 1988, the idea of updating Charles Dickens's holiday-codifying A Christmas Carol could not have been new. Yet for all the many film adaptations till then, at least five major live-action features and two significant animated shorts, this hadn't happened, so far as "real" movies went. Even touching on the non-major adaptations, all I can confirm is 1975's The Passions of Carol, which gender-swapped Dickens's skinflint out for one Carol Screwge, which is not, actually, the more common way I've seen her name spelled, though I want it to be how her creators spelled it. In case I'm being unclear, The Passions of Carol is a porno. So, before 1988, it seems like that's all we've got for present-day-set Christmas Carols.
But if you want crass exploitation on a mass scale, leave it to the 80s—indeed, this is even one of the things this movie's "about," having its cake and eating it too—and, as that decade drew towards its end, it gave us Scrooged, which does not by any means pussyfoot around about being contemporary. It is the most 80s version of A Christmas Carol imaginable, by virtue of being one of the most 80s movies imaginable, starting with its very title, which I assume is making the exact same pun I hope the porno was making, but, either way, turns the name of Dickens's most famous character into a dirty-feeling, violent-sounding adjective. When its Jacob Marley arrives, he doesn't ring bells, like some effete Victorian spirit hoping to send a chill down your spine, he blows up the fuckin' wall. More crucially, it stars Bill Murray.
There's probably even more fundamental shifts at work here, 145 years after Dickens. Scrooged is body-and-soul the product of a secular age, very much a film that, despite remaining a ghost story, doesn't expect or even want you to believe in supernatural rewards and punishments, which is one reason, amongst others, why it gives its spiritual crisis to a much younger Ebenezer, and rewards him—let's say, "materially"—in ways that Dickens, whose biography indicates such concerns were likewise of paramount importance to him, still didn't want to include in his tale about an old man having a late-life awakening to Christian charity. (The short version is that, like Carol Screwge before him, this Ebenezer gets to fuck.)
But, befitting its decade, the superficial distinction is the most important: Bill Murray plays Ebenezer Scrooge—or "Frank Cross," a president of programming at a television network who goes out of his way to tell us he's the youngest in his employer's history—and that immediately does something very strange to A Christmas Carol. Bill Murray ascended to comedy superstardom on the basis of being funny in a very particular way—not to be too blunt about it, it was by being an asshole (by which I mean "he played assholes," though either meaning might be accurate). And not just any asshole, but a smug, superior asshole with a specific worldview, whose modal idea of a good time is being pointedly indifferent while cracking wise and subtly asserting that his jokes were for self-amusement, not yours, and sometimes feeling like he held the whole universe in a somewhat-good-natured but abiding contempt. This was sometimes literally true, if you agree that a movie's "universe" is coextensive with its story and production, which is why he's so good in Ghostbusters. And so having Murray is, let's get it out there, great: it gives this Christmas Carol access to something no other Christmas Carol had ever had, except Disney's adaptation with Scrooge McDuck, and only for about three minutes at the beginning. This is the prospect of Ebenezer Scrooge as a self-justifying comic spectacle. Of the previous major film versions of A Christmas Carol, all with readily-distinguishable Ebenezers, not one of them had pursued the character's potential for irresponsible, downward-punching shock comedy, even though I think this a salient aspect of Dickens's first stave, what with the proto-asshole comedy evinced by Ebenezer's zingers about "surplus population[s]" and burying merrymakers with stakes of holly through their hearts like they were Yuletide vampires. Alastair Sim, the best Ebenezer of the prior Christmas Carols, offers a slight sense of humor in 1951's Scrooge, but hesitates to push it; no other major live-action Ebenezer even contemplates being funny.
Needless to say, Murray contemplates being funny. It's not ever a performance you could reduce to something one-dimensional like "Christmas Carol parody"—Murray heartily believed in this project (it was a return to leading roles for Murray after four years of semi-neurotic self-exile following Ghostbusters and The Razor's Edge), and there's a lot of genuine investment he brings (not to mention the flock of Murray siblings he included in the supporting cast)—but Scrooged is constantly testing how off-the-wall, off-script, and snide about itself that it can get while still doing right by a classic source material, or even just remaining functional. It's a matter of taste, but to me this experimental gouging at the emotional spine of A Christmas Carol works out fantastically, by being funny, and by doing the subtle narrative work of preparing us for this movie's ending, too. The other "problem" (and look to Murray's spiritual remake, Groundhog Day, to see how this can sandbag him) is that any Bill Murray comedy of redemption (which, by 1988, is also a personally Bill Murray-driven project, with its director, Richard Donner, and writers, SNL veterans Mitch Glazer and Michael O'Donoghue, operating somewhat as Murray's subordinates), is already at odds with its own mission. After all, if you're here to see Murray, you're not here to see him be nice, feel feelings, or have morality. You're here to see him be a dick, and while you may also want to see him be punished for it, you probably don't want him to stop. Scrooged's elegant solution is to take Murray from a guy who's a dick about Christmas to a guy who's a dick for Christmas.
So: with Christmas right around the corner, our young executive has bet his career on a ludicrous-sounding mega-production of—you guessed—Charles Dickens's immortal classic, A Christmas Carol, that somehow involves everything from Shakespeareans reading from old leatherbound volumes to Solid Gold dance numbers involving nip-slip costumes to location shooting out in far-flung Pacific isles, all to be aired live on Christmas Eve, and Frank has done all of this without it ever occurring to him, not that he would actually care, that he's the Scrooge of his own life's story, what with the constant demeaning of everyone beneath him and the forcing of hundreds of people to give up their holiday for his aggrandizement.
At least one of his Cratchits, Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwaite), won't have to give up his, because Frank fires him when he voices the weakest possible objections to Frank's new Christmas Carol promo. (Involving disconnected imagery of everything A Christmas Carol isn't—random murders, heroin injections, atomic war—Frank is ecstatic to discover he's given an old lady a heart attack and the papers are running that as a front-page story.) He's also terrible to his other Cratchit, Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard), who isn't as disposable as Eliot, though this only means she will be working overtime and getting yelled at, to the detriment of her family, including her son Calvin (Nicholas Phillips), traumatized into mute silence since his father's passing. (So no points for guessing who Calvin is, Christmas Carol-wise.) But the night before Christmas Eve, Frank is promised a confrontation with his sins, when his mentor Lew Hayward (John Forsythe) returns—much to Frank's surprise, because he's dead, and it shows—and while Frank can clutch at the possibility that this was only a nightmare, or maybe even some kind of zany scheme by his corporate rival (John Glover), Lew's warning comes true when the Ghosts of Christmas Past (David Johansen), Present (Carol Kane), and Future (predominantly animatronics, but also Robert Hammond) arrive to interrupt Frank's busy Christmas Eve with a journey into the depths of his blackened heart.
This isn't too precious about Dickens, which is obvious enough with Murray rattling off barbs and bouncing between cool disaffection and shrieking fury, but that obscures the tremendous structural change here, namely disaggregating the ghostly visits across a 24-hour span and giving this Ebenezer a worldly task that he must complete, despite the increasingly diminished capacity he'll endure as a result of what feels like to him, and looks like to everyone else, a cascading nervous breakdown. That this task is a production of A Christmas Carol isn't even self-referential icing, it's incredibly important to how to the film works, but in the meantime there's another big modification I haven't even alluded to, which is how vastly much more of a role it gives to this Ebenezer's lost love, Claire Phillips (Karen Allen), whom he seeks out, once prompted, in the present. This, then, is also the Christmas Carol that's a romance, rather than just a story that indicates a pitiful old man was once capable of romance. I understand the objection; it is, more than the special effects, more than reimagining Ebenezer as a TV executive, possibly even more than casting Murray, the most "80s" thing happening here, openly declaring that it prefers the shape of a quadrant-pleasing popcorn movie with sex as a prize at the end.
As noted, I like this about Scrooged, for it, and Frank's comparative youth, permits a "happiness" that isn't rendered immediately melancholy by one's inference that the best Ebenezer can hope for in his dotage is to reflect with less misery on the wasted life behind him, while, actuarially-speaking, his net benefit to society will likely still be negative in the end. If there are aspects of it I don't like, then, it's in the execution—Frank and Claire's relationship was Murray's contribution, and honestly he should've pushed harder (though it's also likely that Donner, in preparing a final cut, needed to speed this along to get to a proper "Christmas Carol" runtime, typically around 90 minutes—Scrooged goes 100—but this, I think, needed at least a couple more). Realistically, it's probably just the nature of this story that Claire is going to feel a little too instrumental, because Ebenezer's love, Belle, was already instrumental, because everything in Dickens's story is "instrumental." If anything, Scrooged addresses deficiencies in previous adaptations, which just toss Belle into the mix as one more symbol atop the pile, without attempting anything resembling an actual courtship whose failure we're supposed to be sad about.
Scrooged certainly gets this far, thanks to a screenplay that puts some meat on this relationship's bones in the form of a Christmas meet-cute (and nice subsequent-Christmas coitus), and by providing an actual inciting incident for their break-up. (Okay, a minor nitpick is that Frank is entirely right to be annoyed with how his movie's plot forces this wonderful woman to insist they have Christmas dinner with their friends rather than Frank's big boss, making her unbelievably callous to this once-in-a-lifetime chance that her boyfriend's been working towards for years. But at least making their break-up about Christmas manages to obfuscate the usual Christmas Carol distraction, of having every important event in Ebenezer's life occur in late December.) The relationship does, however, get awkward during the present-set scenes, which have to rocket Frank through the story, and Frank comes off crazy even to us, boomeranging from "I still love you" to "you do-gooder bitch," without any good reason for it (besides Murray, wisely enough, playing up that he is going crazy). But it works amazingly well, all things considered, partly because it provides Frank opportunity for real spiritual backsliding, such as Ebenezers do not get when the ghosts get jammed down their throats all at once; more than anything, it's because Allen is as vital to this movie as Murray, keeping Claire a credible human being even though Claire's sole purpose is to be jerked around and then trotted out on live TV so her boyfriend can announce his redemption by way of trying out some advanced sexual positions on her.* It's not even some brilliant, intellectually-layered performance; it's just Allen, and her soft eyes and one of the few all-my-teeth-and-all-my-gums grins I've ever found attractive (or even non-frightening) rendering something genuinely plausible out of the open-hearted understanding, frankly-irrational affection, and emblematic goodness that this utter puppet of a role demands. And I could spend all day naming actresses who, through no fault of their own, would've felt completely phony and sunk the whole movie around them with it.
On the more traditional front, it's just terrific. Scrooged is tacking as hard as any Christmas Carol ever had into horror, which is saying something very complimentary about this adaptation of a horror tale. It is, naturally, less apparent with Christmases Past and Present, visualized extremely distinctly from the book, and different apparently for difference's sake (which I can respect, and I do in fact like Past's "demonic Brooklyn cab driver" a great deal, even if it's somewhat arbitrary; Present's "physically-cruel and rather-perverted stageplay fairy" while agreeable enough if you enjoy Kane's high-pitched trill, is, I admit, a genuinely perplexing deviation). Past and Present are, in truth, mainly vehicles for jokes at Frank's expense, intermixed with Scroogey pathos (but good jokes, or at least some well-delivered womp-womps, and also good Scroogey pathos); but Donner presents these sequences in ways that keep even the "nice" ghosts unsettling on top of being abrasively amusing. I am, for instance, very fond of the gesture towards Twilight Zone horror at the conclusion of Scrooged's version of Stave Two, when Christmas Past abandons Frank on the set of his younger self's infantile children's show and Donner lets us sit there long enough to think about what it might mean to sit there forever.
Then there's Christmas Future, and there simply is no better Christmas Future. Its Reaper-like figure is, conceptually, pure traditionalism, but a version of that tradition realized with all the possibilities of 1988. It's so wonderfully well-realized, in fact, that Scrooged makes a joke about it in advance, when Frank mistakes the chintzy TV Christmas Carol Christmas Future as his ghost, then (with great stupidity) mistakes the real one as the TV one. This Christmas Future is legitimately infernal—howling captives inside its ribcage, that kind of infernal; whereas its introduction is an all-timer, a black shape looming up across a giant bank of televisions—and Donner exploits Stave Four for several minutes of uncut horror, emphasizing the "what might be" part of it, without ever surrendering its immediacy, with a headlong rush of expressionistic set design and ghastly swathes of blown-out light. It culminates in the severest "dead Ebenezer" scene imaginable, using jagged editing to put Frank inside his pine box, just prior to his body's cremation. A lot of Scrooged is effects-driven-popcorn-movie scary (our Marley figure is played for laughs, but he is still one superlative rotting corpse); but this? This is just fucking scary. Yet the nastiest part of Scrooged's Stave Four isn't even setting Bill Murray on fire: in what might be the cleverest twist this screenplay ever puts on A Christmas Carol, we find that Frank's refusal of redemption isn't even only about his soul, but how his current state is so contagiously vile that he's set off a chain of events that will degrade Claire into the same greedy, ugly monster he is (and while I'm not sure I completely share Donner's belief that the best visual shorthand for that idea is "here in the future, Karen Allen dresses like an aging 1940s movie star for some reason," I still adore the idea itself).
But "cleverest thing" is a competitive field here. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say its media satire is "clever," but it's cleverly-used—this specific reimagination of the scenario for the 80s is smart just for recognizing that while feature filmmakers could be moved to intellectually despise "small-time predatory moneylending," they're likely to hate television viscerally, which is how we get a Christmas Past whose face is, intermittently, a horrific, staticky TV screen shifting between Murray's face and a skull—and there's something to be said for how it changes the stakes of A Christmas Carol to make them more amenable to comedy, both broadening them so that Frank is, in himself, a force of culturewide evil, and reducing them, because the worst Frank can do is just make American TV slightly stupider, which allows Scrooged to envision its target as something completely clownish, in ways one guesses that "homeless Londoners in winter" might have sucked the joy out of. Then again, one of the movie's most effective scenes involves a frozen corpse who didn't need to die, which is where Donner comes in, and part of why I'd call Scrooged his finest film. I'm not entirely sure how he does it, but managing tone was something that just came naturally to filmmakers in the 80s. This is a master-class on how to control tone when the movie seems like it should be flying apart, even if the lessons here remain, to me, opaque; maybe it's the loving care of the effects and the urgency of the horror, maybe it's Murray's performance that makes his funny Murrayness part of his character's defective personality, maybe it's just an unerring sense to know when to be "on," maybe it's craft. Scrooged has some swell craft, anyway, top to bottom, from Michael Chapman's photography, using color and shadow and reflections to capture both holiday coziness and holiday bleakness (sometimes hilarious bleakness, notably the hellish reds and oranges of Frank's Christmas Carol commercial, sometimes not hilarious at all), on down to Danny Elfman's score, which knows, as Elfman would, how to leaven darkness without cheapening it.
But what impresses me the most is the ending, because it requires some struggle to actually like it, even though it always makes me cry whether I "like" it or not; it is a broken ending, as its creators will cheerfully admit, and while it was already broken even in the script, it had the complicating factor of Murray just winging the shit out of it on the day. It is the most 80s Goddamn thing—bizarrely violent, outlandishly metafictional without even seeming to realize that's what it's doing, willing to completely annihilate its own story logic. I will now degenerate into describing Scrooged like an art film. Whatever it is, it's genius: Murray works himself up into a freakish superposition of comic ad-libbing and weeping schmaltz that arguably isn't even reaching the "acting" part of "good acting," but it's great in spite of itself, the signs of actual, intense psychological distress contributing to a very necessary feeling of reality giving way, as Frank commits what amounts to an act of terrorism in order to declare his love for humanity, interrupting his own live show at gunpoint, which ultimately unifies with Murray interrupting his own movie to tell us to not be like him, an 80s shithead, in direct address. (And then a catchy pop song, of course; it's also notable that Frank's redemption is televised, which means we get to end exactly on the cathartic point, rather than Ebenezer dashing around London for a stave.) It's insane, but insane in all the right ways, giving into the ritual pageant of A Christmas Carol right in the middle of a fake-ass looking TV set that tells us that, for all its expensive bells and whistles, Frank's own Christmas Carol was (at best) just ritualized pageantry itself, just like Murray's Christmas Carol is. It admits that none of this bullshit—none of Dickens's bullshit, even!—is real, but, hopefully, Christmas spirit is. It's my favorite Christmas Carol, and, perhaps accordingly, my favorite Christmas movie.
*Thanks to Friend Dan for that one. He's, like, wrong, but he's not wrong to point it out.