Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Scrooged


When reading up on the production of Scrooged, I learned that this was the first movie that Bill Murray starred in after Ghostbusters --- that's four years of his prime that he spent out of the limelight.  Usually, when a comedian takes that long of a break, they never get their groove back (Dana Carvey, I'm looking at you).  Then again, Bill Murray is an unusual guy, so it should not be surprising that his career has been just as odd.

Scrooged is an updated-for-the-80s version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  In fact, Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is a television executive that is masterminding a multimillion dollar live broadcast of Dickens' classic on Christmas Eve.  If you know the story of Scrooge, then you know the gist of the story.  Frank is an absolute bastard and a tyrannical boss, so his late boss (John Forsythe) reaches from beyond the grave to warn Frank to change his ways or be eternally damned.  That evening, Frank is visited by the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future.  But will he learn from his extra-special extrasensory night, or will he dismiss it as the effects from "Russian vodka poisoned by Chernobyl?"  Obviously, since this is a Christmas story and it is based on one of the enduring Christmas classics, radioactive vodka (distilled from tear-soaked turnips) ends up playing an important part and Frank eventually mutates into the Toxic Avenger.  Or he lives happily ever after and is forgiven by everyone for years of abuse after just one evening of sincere regret.

Like most movies starring Bill Murray, the focus of this film is definitely on him.  However, this film has its share of of noteworthy supporting roles.  In a normal movie, you would suppose that the romantic interest (Karen Allen) or the nemeses at work (Robert Mitchum as Frank's increasingly loopy boss and John Glover as his competition) would provide the bulk of the film's drama and depth.  Here, not so much.  All three did a decent job, but were nothing special.  No, in A Christmas Carol (and, therefore, in this update), the key supporting characters are the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present.  Both are unusual roles, since neither has any character development and both basically just guide Frank through time and space while doing some narration, but both manage to steal scenes away from Bill Murray, which is quite a feat.  David Johansen (lead singer of the New York Dolls) is perfect as the seedy, cigar-smoking, cab-driving Ghost of Christmas Past, and he clearly has a blast in every scene.  Johansen would be the surprise of this movie if Carol Kane wasn't so awesome as the Ghost of Christmas Present.  Making her into a physically abusive sadist might be an unusual take on the character, but Kane plays it up with such childlike glee that it's fun to watch her beat the living hell out of Frank.

Also worth noting is Grace (Alfre Woodard), who serves as the stand-in for the Bob Cratchet character and provides maybe the most emotional depth to the film; on the flip side of Grace's put-upon-but-still-valued role, Eliot (Bobcat Goldthwait) is the angry, unappreciated version of Bob Cratchet that decides that going postal will solve his problems.  This movie has a lot of cameo appearances and bit roles, too.  Miles Davis and Paul Shaffer play street musicians; Brian Doyle-Murray and his brothers, John and Joel Murray, play Frank's father, brother, and a random dude, respectively; Robert Goulet, Lee Majors, Mary Lou Retton, and John Houseman all played themselves; and even the television broadcast within the movie had stars like Buddy Hackett and Jamie Farr.

Juggling all those noteworthy actors was probably a task in and of itself, but director Richard Donner did a good job.  Aside from finding recognizable faces for every important role (except for the Tiny Tim analogue) and getting them to fill their bit parts admirably, he also managed to do some pretty imaginative things with the special effects in the film.  The Ghost of Christmas Future looked pretty cool with his "ribcage of the damned" and sometimes-but-not-always television face.  The makeup on the deceased John Forsythe was pretty awesome, too.  In fact, the only thing in this movie that doesn't look good is Frank's hair in the flashback scenes.

Apparently, "Scrooged" translates into
"Chief Attack Ghosts" in Spanish
I have two problems with this film, and the first deals with Bill Murray.  I love Bill Murray.  He's awesomely funny and has developed into a talented dramatic actor.  That said, he basically plays himself in just about every movie until Rushmore.  This can be a good thing; Murray is always funny, even in his bad movies, and he is let loose for a good portion of this film.  Unfortunately, he and Donner decided that Frank Cross had to be unlikable at the film's start so that he could transform by the film's end.  That sounds fine --- Scrooge isn't a nice guy, either --- but in execution, it's a little too much.  There's certainly some black humor in Murray's quieter moments in the first quarter of the film, but when he's screaming, he's just screaming.  The likable jerk that Murray plays so well doesn't show up in these scenes; instead, we are treated to Murray being mean and not deflecting anything with a smirk or self-deprecating joke.  I like the rest of Murray's performance, but I think there are a lot of missed comedic opportunities in the "before" phase of this movie.

My other gripe has more to do with the source material than anything else, but I suppose you should shift some blame to the screenwriters, too.  I'll be honest with you...I hate Charles Dickens.  Well, maybe not the man, but definitely his writing.  His style is overly wordy (because he was paid by the word), his characters are unrecognizable as human beings, and his plots are usually contrived.  I will credit him with some pretty good high concepts, but that's the only way I have found to appreciate Dickens --- by stripping his stories down to their bare bones and then imagining a more amusing tale from there.  [Steps off soapbox.]  Personally, I find the emotional part of this story to be a little insulting.  Frank is mean for years and then wins everyone over immediately?  That seems far too saccharine to coexist in a film with moments of black comedy.  I readily admit to being a soft touch with Christmas movies --- I'm a hot mess of tears, snot and giggles for the entire running time of It's a Wonderful Life --- but the happy ending to Scrooged is too abrupt, too shallow, and/or maybe too overreaching to move even an easy mark like me.  "But it's the source material's fault, Brian!"  Whatever.  If they changed the story to modernize it, they could have tried to make it a little more plausible or a little more emotional.

Don't get me wrong --- I love me some Scrooged.  I watch it every year and I laugh at all the same parts ("It's a bone, you lucky dog!" gets me every time, for some unknown reason), but this is a movie with some fundamental flaws to it.  This might be the least heartwarming Christmas movie I have ever seen, but Murray's charm and the combination of Kane and Johansen always bring me back, year after year.

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